InkInk by Isabelle Rowan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A friend of mine commented recently that she does not like to read authors who are unfamiliar to her. She prefers tried-and-tested books that deliver the same effect, and perform the same function, over and over again.

Given the little free time she has, in-between the demands of work, home and friends, the last thing you want to do is curl up with a book that you actively dislike, or maybe even despise, or which (heaven forbid) is boring.

Of course, I sympathise with this sentiment. This is one of the reasons why I have so many different books at various stages of ‘being read’, as it often depends on my mood, energy level or particular interest what I feel like reading.

I do feel, however, that you do yourself a disservice as a reader if you do not experiment a bit in your reading. The benefits of discovery and growth far outweigh the danger of stepping outside of a comfort zone.

But I will never presume to judge other readers. Whatever you read – be it Stephanie Meyer or Michel Foucault – the fact is that you are reading. Hamlet’s comment that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” could apply equally to the diverse communities of genres, authors and readers out there.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Ink by Isabelle Rowan: you could say I popped my MM cherry with this, my first experience of the genre – which apparently is bristling with homely women writing erotic gay fiction dripping with bodily fluids. This piqued my curiosity, as I read a lot of gay literay (literary gay?) fiction.

In response to the question of why (straight) women write (gay) fiction, MM author Amy Lane was quoted on as saying that “love is redemptive, and if any group needs the redemptive qualities of love, it is gay men.” Z.A. Maxfield said that “what was missing from previous gay fiction was the happy ending.” Personally I think that both these sentiments are risible; clearly these female authors promote an idealised view of gay life and sexuality that has little to do with reality, gay or otherwise, coming to think of it.

Anne Tenino commented that MM authors brought ‘romance’ to gay fiction; Josephine Myles said she felt “like a man” when she wrote MM fiction, which entailed a different power dynamic to straight female relationships. The latter comment is interesting because it ignores the fact that gay relationships have power dynamics like any other, particularly with regard to sexual roles (such as ‘top’ and ‘bottom’).

Increasingly then one gets the feeling that MM fiction promotes an idealised world of sexuality-without-consequences, where partners are ‘equal’ and indulge in provocative desires with an attitude that is more permissive than it is liberated.

It is unlikely that Ink is completely representative of this genre, of course. Reading it though has made me curious to try a few more books by different authors, if only to better understand the genre tropes a little better.

Reading this also reminds me how difficult it is to write erotic fiction. Ink attempts to straddle a rather fine line between soft-core innuendo and outright explicitness. There are lots of bits like “Take me into you, Michael” that flirt with anal penetration … but when it comes to the Big Seduction, the sentence that “he nudged the head against Michael’s puckered entrance and began the slow push in” is so droll that it jettisons the reader from the narrative. (From a reader’s point of view, I was also curious as to why Michael was the passive partner specifically; it would have been far better if this had been a ‘flip-flop’, in keeping with the genre’s presumed aim of [gay] sexual equality.)

The reason that this is as explicit as it gets though is, I feel, due to the author’s fundamental lack of understanding of the precise mechanics of gay anal intercourse, in particular. In general there is a lot of staring-into-other’s-eyes and throbbing-members-in-jeans-rubbed-together. (The technical term for this, of course, is ‘frottage’).

The novel’s sole female protagonist, Abby, comes across as a Yoda-like figure, dispensing Hallmark platitudes and feminine insight, but without a hint of her own sexuality. When Michael tells her that his latest boyfriend is, well, a vampire, she does not even blink, and just tells him to “be safe”.

It is Abby that believes in the ‘true love’ that Michael and Dominic share, and that guides the story to its resolute climax of acceptance, reward and disaster avoided. It is clear that Abby is a stand-in for Isabelle Rowan herself, as this is the character that indisputably conveys the ‘moral’ of the story.

Galen, the eternal child vampire conflicted by his nature as a killer and his faded humanity, is very reminiscent of Godrick from the HBO series True Blood, while the idea of a vampire surviving from Roman times has been explored by writers such as Michael Schiefelbein.

There is nothing wrong with using genre tropes though; it just depends how you invigorate them. It is here that Ink blotches its own copybook, as this is rather an anaemic take on vampiric lore. Rowan offers a fumbled explanation of her vampires not being entirely dead, which is why they have sufficient blood circulation to maintain a hard-on. (Glen Duncan’s take on vampiric fuckery is far more transgressive in this regard).

The most interesting part of this novel is its setting, namely the tattoo parlour called Ink. A great idea would have been to focus exclusively on this establishment and to follow it and its vampire management through the ages.

So … in my humble estimation, both gay and vampire fans are likely to be disappointed by this. It remains to ponder what general MM readers make of it. I suppose it satisfies the genre’s general requirement for romanticised titillation, focusing on an idealised and unattainable (gay) relationship.

My biggest problem here is that there is a worrying under-current of anti-gay sentiment that Rowan was probably completely oblivious to. Michael’s fight against his ‘true’ nature, and trying not to give in to his urges, can easily be read as someone struggling to come to terms with being gay, which here is equated with the ‘unnatural’ scourge of vampirism. Perhaps this is reading far too much into such a slender tale, but I think authors need to be aware of the possible interpretations and implications of their work, whether implicit or explicit.

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Carrion discomfort

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, #4)A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two things surprised me about volume four of A Song of Ice and Fire: how much I enjoyed it, and what a good book it is. I think this is the one volume of the series that really showcases George R.R. Martin’s skill as a writer.

It is infinitely better than the stodgy and boring A Clash of Kings. And while it may lack the explosive pacing that made the last 100 or so pages of A Storm of Swords such an incendiary read, I do think this is the better written book.

When A Feast for Crows was published originally, Martin said in an afterword dated 2005 that “all the rest of the characters you love or love to hate will be along next year”. Of course, A Dance with Dragons only appeared in 2011, which was an inordinately long time for readers to wait to hear what happened to Tyrion next.

I think this also says a lot about the success of A Song of Ice and Fire as a literary phenomenon, a fact sometimes overshadowed by the phenomenal success of the HBO television adaptation.

In the same afterword, Martin offers some insight into the narrative structure of A Feast for Crows. He said that there was still so much of the story left to tell that it would not fit within the confines of a single volume.

The simplest way to do that would have been take what I had, chop it in half around the middle, and end with ‘To be continued’. The more I thought about that, however, the more I felt that the readers would be better served by a book that told all the story for half the characters, rather than half the story for all the characters. So that’s the route I chose to take.

Clearly the readers were not ‘better served’, because the book created a storm of controversy upon its release, focused mostly on the absence of Tyrion et al. Besides, Martin was being a bit disingenuous way back in 2005 when he referred to ‘all the story’, because if there is one thing that A Feast for Crows fails miserably at, it is advancing the meta plot of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Having said that, I was quite surprised at the number of those ‘showstopper’ moments there are in volume four that are so beloved by HBO. Martin’s rigorous adherence to specific POV characters means that many major events and character fates are related only tangentially here; clearly we will only get the ‘other side of the story’, as it were, in subsequent volumes. (In particular, I am thinking of the Knight of the Flowers and the siege of Winterfell).

I honestly think that Martin need not have offered any explanation for his narrative choices. Moreso, I also think he was being disingenuous to himself, which served to undermine the true achievement of A Feast for Crows. This judgement was quickly taken up by fans, resulting in volume four being branded as the ‘weakest’ instalment (I have begun reading A Dance with Dragons straightaway, and I must say that, even after such a long absence, Daenerys’s story, for example, is still the weakest and most boring of the lot. So the verdict is still out on that one, as far as I am concerned).

What I loved about A Feast for Crows is how vivid and detailed Martin’s world-building is – far more so than the superficial and transparent medium of the television show. There is a wonderful bit halfway in the book:

The good water came over the arches of the great brick aqueduct the Braavosi called the sweetwater river. Rich men had it piped into their homes; the poor filled their pails and buckets at public fountains.

There is another scene where Sam spends a fortune on hiring a room with a fireplace at an inn … only to discover that not only is there no firewood, but that firewood is both exorbitant and costly, as Braavos is a water-based city, with limited area for forestry.

This might seem like throwaway detail that does not advance the story one jot, but it is critical to Martin’s overall deconstruction of war and power. A lot of this book is spent pondering the ravages of that war and the fact that there is insufficient time to gather in another harvest before the winter settles in with a vengeance.

The Iron Bank of Braavos is also chafing to have its loans repaid, while Cersei’s government owes the High Septon many thousands as well; meanwhile, the Warrior’s Sons and the ‘sparrows’ are worrying indications of a populist revolt.

And then there is the characterisation: I think that the central pairing of Cersei and Jamie has always been at the heart of A Song of Ice and Fire. It can be argued that everything that has happened to date is as a result of their ill-fated love and subsequent choices and actions.

Here these characters are allowed to breathe in extended disquisitions that are fascinating to read. The pairing becomes a complex triangle with the addition of Brienne; what Martin does with this triangle by the end promises immense heartbreak ahead.

Yes, A Feast for Crows does start off rather slowly and takes a while to gain any real kind of momentum, whereafter it just sort of meanders a lot. There is a truly terrible chapter early on called ‘The Soiled Knight’, which reads like a geanology primer. Martin just loves this family-tree bullshit, and thinks his readers lap up this stuff. He would be wise to heed Cersei’s comment that Maester Pycelle had informed her of the High Septon’s history “at tedious length”.

There is a lovely sense of melancholy to volume four as we revisit some earlier locations and reflect on prior events in the light of subsequent developments. This is perhaps every bit as violent and bawdy as number three, except here the bloodshed is more widespread, random and brutal than the carefully choreographed setpiece shockers of the preceding volume. I also got the sense that Martin was having fun here, and enjoyed the opportunity of showing off his writing chops and opening up his a world a bit more.

But really … the Knight of the Red Chicken?

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Bread and Circuses

CarnivalCarnival by Rawi Hage

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always wonder about encountering an author for the first time when he already has a number of books under the belt. Is the one I just read, my first, representative of those prior ones? Has he advanced his craft, or is he just treading water? At the end of the day, one can only ever judge a book on its individual merits; even going back and reading earlier ones is not the same as following an author book to book right from the beginning of his career.

Of course, this is the natural process by which most authors acquire new readers. By stumbling across Carnival, and really enjoying it, I am much more likely to be attracted to Rawi Hage’s back catalogue, as well as recognise his name whenever he publishes something new. This organic, attrition-like relationship between reader and author is perennially fascinating.

So … what does this say about my reading experience of Carnival? Well, this is precisely why I love discovering new writers: to come across a book by a writer I have never read before, to be sufficiently intrigued or curious enough to give it a try, and then to be completely blown away by the experience.

This is by no means a perfect novel. I would go so far as to say that it is as much frustrating as it is illuminating. It is a messy blend of pseudo magic realism and social commentary, it frequently revels too much in the seamy and sordid side of its story; the central character and his assorted hangers-on are often quite detestable.

But there is something truly genuine and incendiary about this tale of an immigrant taxi driver in an unnamed Latin America city on the cusp of a major carnival. Such a plot device is by no means original, and one has to be careful of using so familiar a device to frame a main protagonist who is, in essence, an omniscient narrator.

Hage avoids such pitfalls with aplomb, mainly through the sheer energy of his writing, which is as embellished and purple as a lounge suite in a Saudi Arabian brothel, if you can imagine such a facility … It takes getting used to, this torrent of overripe verbiage. But when you do, you get swept away by the dramatic force of the story, its carefully timed revelations, and the quiet observations and nuances that streak across its surface like shooting stars.

The final chapter is appallingly bleak and grim, and clashes quite markedly with the attempted whimsy of the ‘ending’ ending. Still, this is a bravura effort by a supremely talented writer. By turns shocking and mesmeric, one is really forced inside the skin and mind of Fly the itinerant taxi driver, mass reader, serial masturbator, pseudo-intellectual and magic-carpet rider.

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Lost for Words

Lost for WordsLost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was quite surprised at the brevity of this. Much more a novella than a fully-fledged novel, this is one of those rare instances where I wished a book could have been longer. But that is simply because what there is, is so exquisite.

I first encountered Edward St. Aubyn when Booker-winner Alan Hollinghurst, one of my all-time favourite writers, mentioned him in a Picador interview as ‘a writer to watch out for’. Admittedly, St. Aubyn is a bit of an acquired taste: I have only read two of the Patrick Melrose novels to date, and found them quite rarified and bewilderingly satiric.

A lot has been made of the fact that Lost for Words is ‘St Aubyn Lite’, as if he has succumbed to crass commercialism and finally deigned to write a potboiler. I see it more as a kind of loosening up, and a flexing of literary muscles: it was a joy to see such a dignified, high-brow writer use ‘cunt’, ‘wanker’ and ‘twat’ so many times in a couple of pages in a pastiche of ‘Scottish social realist fiction’ that is so intensely funny it makes your eyes water. And then there is that gloriously uplifting ending, totally deburdened of literary irony or post-modern reflection.

Ostensibly a satire, this is quite a serious treatise on the nature and function of literature in a post-modern, internet context (the bits about ghost-writing software technology are especially funny). While the focus is the machinations of a fictional literary award contest, much like the MAN Booker, I think St. Aubyn’s real focus is the publishing industry itself, especially the fractious (and fractured) relationship between writers, literary agents and publishers.

For a minute there at the end I thought St. Aubyn was not going to unveil the winner of the Elysian prize, but he is in far too generous a mood to behave so churlishly towards his readers. Glorious stuff.

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The Leftovers

The LeftoversThe Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a premise: on 14 October of an unspecified year, 2% of the global population just … disappear. Tom Perrotta homes in on the fictional town of Mapleton, and the seismic shifts that this peculiar event has on the local community. Well, you would think that there would be seismic shifts.

After all, we are well-versed in the tropes of apocalyptic fiction and, increasingly, movies. We know how these stories work, their pattern and meaning, the stock characters. And, importantly, how they are supposed to end (which is critical in terms of reader expectation and satisfaction, as so much of the apocalyptic sub-genre, by default, has to begin with the end).

Think of this premise as a powerful narrative engine, and then think of the author as a driver who refuses to let his foot off the brake. For nearly three-quarters, The Leftovers is such a frustrating read. The ‘event’, or whatever the hell it is, is only obliquely referenced, and never properly explained, or even recounted. (All we have are fragments from various characters’ perspectives). The book quickly becomes mired in the quotidian detail of the lives, private hells and petty epiphanies of the people of Mapleton. It is as if Perrotta stuck a stick into an anthill, and was then content to merely observe.

There is a weird religious cult called the Guilty Remnant, who do not talk, chain-smoke endlessly as a form of bizarre affirmation of their deluded faith, wear only white (like escapees from a lunatic asylum), and who quietly go about haunting the lives of the leftovers. As if this was not strange enough, another even more extreme religious nutcase in the form of Reverend Wayne believes it is his duty to rid the world of its pain: he does this by therapeutic hugging; this inevitably becomes known as the Happy Hug Movement.

The reader is quite wrong-footed by this rather heavy-handed satire. It simply does not gel with the sort of quiet domestic yarn Perrotta is spinning. And then there is the gallows humour: this is a blackly funny book that often surprised me into laughter. But again, this distances one from the characters, who just seem to revolve around the orbits of their former loves, much like hamsters spinning mindlessly and futilely on their exercise wheels.

And then something happened.

I am unsure if it was because I was near the end and was rushing to finish the book, but suddenly I could not stop reading. And, equally suddenly, the characters became painfully, shimmeringly human. It was as if Perrotta had been patiently chipping away at my perception up to this point, and then suddenly the scales fell from my eyes, to reveal the true beauty and terror of his tale.

There is a scene towards the end … well, it is a letter actually, which Nora writes to Kevin to explain how broken she feels (this bookends a speech that Nora gives at Heroes’ Day near the beginning where she talks about the Day Before). She recounts how her entire family disappeared from the dinner table, while she was in the kitchen fetching some paper towel to mop up the apple juice that her infant daughter had spilled (she had lost her temper at her daughter as well, mainly because her husband was ignoring the entire domestic drama, as he was talking on his cellphone to his new girlfriend). Suddenly there is no noise emanating from the diningroom. She returns to find that everyone is just … gone.

It is such a heartbreaking piece of writing: the banality of the setting, the matter-of-factness of Nora’s recounting, her subsequent loss and mortification, the trouble she has had to connect emotionally with Kevin as a potential suitor. It brings home the full devastation of this inexplicable event with such a sledgehammer impact that it hits the reader full between the eyes.

All in a single letter, near the end of this extraordinary book.

And then that double whammy of the actual ending, of death and rebirth, when we find out that the Guilty Remnant are not pitiable losers, but very deluded and dangerous fanatics, ordinary people who have been duped and who remain unaware of the full consequences of their choices and actions: until they are forced to confront their own humanity. Given the current fractious state of the world, and how cults and general radicalism and intolerance are popping up globally like stagnant bubbles from some foetid cauldron, this is a deeply disturbing and frighteningly realistic book. And one that, at the end, is so achingly, beautifully, transcendentally human.

P.S. As soon as I finished reading this, I watched the pilot episode of HBO’s adaptation: inevitably, the quietness, opacity and obliqueness that seeps through so much of the book, until it culminates in a point of sublime distillation, has been replaced by a more frenetic and conventional SF apocalyptic narrative that is inevitably, but still quite sadly, much more heavy-handed. However, I was pleased to see HBO take some of Perrotta’s scenes to even darker places than he hinted at. There are also a lot of very strong female roles in this, which is always good. I am much less pleased at Kevin the mayor’s television transformation into a gung-ho small-town cop, or Reverend Wayne as an incarnation of Randall Flagg. Then again, you cannot always have everything.

Sometimes all there is are the leftovers.

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EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Recently I read an article entitled ‘How Amazon and Goodreads are changing literary criticism’, in which Anna Frey Taylor and Michael Cathcart note, rather sniffily, that ‘social media’ has resulted in book reviewing falling outside the purview of academics.

Taylor and Cathcart argue that, as opposed to the rigour of literary criticism, armchair reviewers like those on Goodreads instead respond to books emotionally. Which apparently is a bad thing.

Euphoria by Lily King is a case in point. The book has garnered ecstatic, one could even say euphoric, reviews from fellow writers and critics. My response to the book, as a humble reader, however, is much more complicated.

While I do not think it is possible to avoid comparisons with Anne Patchett’s State of Wonder, I also found myself thinking of other recent novels deploying scientists in prominent roles, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour.

It seems as if King deliberately set out to write the polar opposite of these novels. Euphoria is so dour and grim, peopled with such thoroughly detestable main characters, packed with so much grief, terror and horror, and has such an appallingly downbeat ending, that Patchett’s novel seems the Hallmark equivalent.

Yup, I did not enjoy Euphoria that much, and it was a real slog to get to the ending. This is not to say it is a bad book, however: it is meticulously researched, and the writing is beautifully plangent in places, especially King’s nature writing and scene-setting.

But, boy oh boy, these are such unlikeable characters. Both Fen and Bankson are arseholes of the first order, who both use Nell to their own ends in order to satisfy their orneriness and masculine pride respectively.

And Nell herself is quite opaque in the end, leaving the reader no clear idea why she leads Bankson on, or what leads her to ultimately follow Fen into such despair and self-destruction. Then, of course, there is the astonishingly cavalier approach of all three to their study subjects, the tribes of Guinea, who become nothing but pawns in a lovers’ triangle.

My main gripe from a technical point of view is that King leaves it to the reader to work out which point of view has preference in any given chapter. I struggled at the beginning, and kept on having to adjust mental gears to reassess what I knew of the three main characters at any given point. Perhaps it was King’s intention to wrong-foot the reader in this fashion; I found it quite distracting in the end.

Given the rigour of much of the book, which switches between Nell’s anthropological journals and the first-hand observations of the romantic triumvirate, I do not think that Nell’s fate should have been left so murky in the end. I also felt that Nell’s elevation to tragic heroine was rather jarring, given her complicity in the events that unfold.

Still, there is much food for thought here in this tale of Old World anthropologists who thought that science and their own sense of imperialism, cultural and otherwise, would subjugate the natural world and its tribes to the will of the West. It is especially ironic therefore that the Grid monograph devised by the three scientists here is ultimately used by the Nazis to prop up their theory of Teutonic fundamentalism.

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