“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

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“Black Vodka” by Deborah Levy (2013)

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“The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man.”

Some people (including Michele Roberts in her introduction to this collection) say that the short story fits our age better than longer narrative structures because we now live in a world where we have short attention spans and can’t or won’t commit to anything that takes up too much time. I think this is nonsense, given that the average length of a film these days seems to be about two and a half hours instead of ninety minutes. In truth, the power of the short story is that it reveals quite a lot about you as a writer. I’ve certainly written more short stories over the years than I have novels, but I find them a lot harder. You have to be so economical with your prose that I think it quickly shows up if you’re not very good at them.

Deborah Levy’s collection falls somewhat flat to me. I haven’t read anything else by her, so I can’t compare this to her other works, but I wasn’t that keen. Each of the ten stories has a European flavour, and focuses on someone who is struggling somehow in the modern world, but most of their problems are most definitely of a “first world” nature. In “Pillow Talk”, a man has an affair while on holiday, leading to a tense reunion with his girlfriend. In “Vienna”, a recent divorcee sleeps with a new woman. The most interesting is “Cave Girl”, in which a young woman radically changes her appearance and personality, leading to a change in the dynamic of her relationship with her brother.

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but my overall opinion was that the stories are just an act of sheer pretension. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the actual writing is good, but the stories are inspiring and feel oddly detached from anything real. I see that they are representative of “people scared of not seeming cool” as described by Michele Roberts, but that’s not something I really relate to. (Not because I’m cool, but more because I’m quite uninterested in what people think of me.) She also says the stories force us to question our places in the world, but I felt no such compulsion. Instead I just found myself slightly irritated by everyone and unsatisfied by most of the endings. I enjoy it when a story ends with an unanswered question, but here I found that even if there was a question being asked, I wasn’t totally sure often what it was, nor did I have much interest in finding the answer.

Intriguing and some very nice uses of language, but you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“No-One Ever Has Sex On A Tuesday” by Tracy Bloom (2014)

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(Incorrect.)

“There are those who get to choose the father of their child and those who don’t.”

It’s easy to be conned into buying a book if it’s got a silly title. There was something weirdly captivating about this one. I even ignored the unusual grammatical choice, but that alone should have clued me in to the fact that I was about to embark on something ludicrous. If Bridget Jones’s Diary is the Waitrose of this genre, then No-One Ever Has Sex on a Tuesday is Lidl.

Our heroine, Katy Chapman (the budget Bridget), is in something of a pickle. She’s pregnant, and she’s pretty sure that the father is her casual boyfriend Ben, who is a bit of a lad and eight years younger than her. However, there’s a slim chance that the father could be Matthew, her teenage ex who she had a one night stand with at a school reunion. After that incident, they vowed not to see one another again, but when they both turn up in the same antenatal class, they have to face facts.

Katy tries to keep their former dalliance a secret from Ben, while Matthew attempts the same with his wife Alison, who is now pregnant after a long time struggling with fertility issues. Secrets, of course, do not stay hidden in literature, and soon the truth begins to spill out as the births get nearer, with potentially disastrous consequences.

So, we’re supposed to be on the side of Katy, but from the moment she sleeps with Matthew behind Ben’s back, my sympathy for her vanished. She spends the rest of the novel hoping that her secret is contained, but it feels like something too big to be swept under the rug. She is selfish and doesn’t seem to give much thought to anyone else’s feelings, least of all Ben or Alison. Matthew, in turn, is somewhat misogynistic and while at first he’s determined not to ruin his stability with Alison, by the end he’s all but ready to drop Alison and believes that Katy wants him back immediately. He can’t understand that times have changed and he was other responsibilities now.

This is to say nothing of the supporting cast. Ben is so wrapped up in his own feelings that he absconds on a stag do instead of being with his girlfriend. The character of Daniel, Katy’s best friend, is a walking stereotype and almost offensive in the portrayal of gay men, with his dialogue so camp it may as well be written in pink glitter. He, too, is far too concerned with how the birth will affect him, despite him really having no part in it whatsoever. He also throws the most inappropriate baby shower in history. Alison is perhaps the only character I have even a smidgen of sympathy for as she has apparently no clue all this drama is going on around her, but even she’s not an especially pleasant person.

The plot is relatively straightforward and doesn’t meander too much, but there’s a lot of emphasis on how funny everyone is being, and how hilarious their pranks and jokes are. If you have to signpost the humour, then it’s not there. There’s also the “hysterical” character known only as Braindead, who is supposedly Ben’s comic foil, and so stupid it’s apparently a wonder he manages to get out of bed in the morning without suffocating himself with the pillow. There are some very staged scenes where trivial things have to happen to move the story along, such as when Matthew spills coffee on himself in front of Ben, and has to remove his shirt, thus revealing that he has the same tattoo on his hip as Katy.

Ultimately, the book struggles under its own delusions of being much funnier and more original than it really is. The writing itself is fine, but the humour is forced and there isn’t a single person here I’d go out of my way to save from walking into traffic. And yet, inexplicably, there are over 1,000 five-star reviews of the book on Amazon. Since the sequel has less than 100 reviews in total, I sense something afoot here, but that may just be in my head.

I’m not disparaging “chick lit”, as I think there’s quite a lot of it that’s very good, but this isn’t one to go for. Lisa Jewell, Alexandra Potter and Veronica Henry would all serve you better. I’m not carrying on with this series.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Pride And Prejudice” by Jane Austen (1813)

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Several years ago, I hefted my way through Jane Eyre which, while turning out to be very much worth it, I described at the time as being the reading equivalent of “eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife”. I’ll stick with that analogy for this one. Pride and Prejudice, for all its fans, was to me like trying to eat a whole deer raw, antlers first, with a plastic picnic knife and one hand tied behind my back. Are you getting the impression I didn’t like it? You’d sort of be right, but not fully. Let me explain after the synopsis.

I’m sure you know the story. This is the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, intelligent second daughter of the Bennet clan, a young woman who is prime meat on the marriage market of Regency England. Her mother, the hypochondriac Mrs Bennet, is distraught that none of her five daughters are yet married, and hopes they soon will be, as the money and estate can’t be passed down through the female line. At yet another ball, Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, a brooding, unpleasant man who doesn’t seem capable of socialising in any normal way. The two of them turn against one another quite quickly.

But then Darcy reappears and admits that he loves Elizabeth, most ardently. Elizabeth rejects him, thinking him boorish and proud. He respectfully steps back and soon Elizabeth is caught up in the matrimonial dramas of her sisters. But then, upon visiting Darcy’s house of Pemberley, she meets those who know him better and she comes to think that maybe she’s been too hasty with her first impression. If only he could overcome his pride, and she her prejudice, they may yet make for a happy couple.

And if that’s not what happened, then I probably fell asleep for several pages along the way.

What did I like? Well, I didn’t think I much liked any of it while I was halfway through, but in talking to a friend about bits of it, I realised that I do enjoy both Mr and Mrs Bennet and their relationship. He loves and tolerates his wife for all her insecurities and issues as she worries herself silly about her daughters – at one point, when Elizabeth has turned down the proposal of Mr Collins, her mother doesn’t speak to her for a few weeks. I also really enjoy the linguistic sparring of Elizabeth and Darcy, but the scenes are few and far between, and they don’t match Beatrice and Benedick by any means. Elizabeth, nonetheless, is a feisty character, displaying traits that, for the time, may be considered unseemly for a young woman, such as running across country alone to attend to her ill sister, muddying her dress along the route.

However, my overarching feeling was, “Get on with it, you snobs!” as they all waffled on about who should marry who. I get that there are themes here on whether one should marry for love or money, but they sit slightly submerged between conversations about who’s travelling where, who will be attending each ball, and how much money everyone has. I can see how it was important at the time, and there are some moments that may have even appeared quite daring, such as the youngest daughter, Lydia, eloping against her family’s wishes, but I found little relevance to now, aside from the idea that we shouldn’t judge on first appearances, and that excessive pride is unattractive. I think I’m just underwhelmed because the language is so ornate it was like trying to find a golf ball in a thicket to pick out what was actually going on, and people had really built it up for me. Austen can write, I’m not doubting it, but she’s too florid for my tastes.

Also, at no point does Darcy get wet.

I’m not sorry I read it, I feel it has its place in the canon for a reason, and I’m not calling it a bad book by any means. But I do think it’s overrated, and I’m in no hurry to attend to an adaptation (it’s just been announced that ITV are doing a new one soon). However, the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sits on my desk, so I sense I’ll be returning to a twisted version of this world shortly. Something has to liven it up.

“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

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