Too lurid and too pretentiously cute!

Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell

Lurid and Cute When I read Alex Preston’s review of Adam Thirlwell’s new novel in the Financial Times I instantly wanted to read and review this book for Shiny New Books. As you know I love quirky novels, and I thought this book would be fun, very contemporary and something a bit different.

I wish I’d read some more reviews for it has since become clear that Thirlwell (one of the Granta Best British novelists under 40) is a real ‘Marmite’ author – there is little middle-ground, you’ll love it or loathe it. I quickly grew to loathe this book and gave up at around page 115 during the orgy scene.

It takes place in a great unnamed metropolis, where our unnamed narrator wakes up in bed beside a woman who is not his wife, and she is in a bad state with blood and vomit around her mouth – but still alive. He delivers Romy, with whom he is having an affair to the hospital and goes home to his beloved wife Candy and the house they share with his parents. He has recently given up work, saying he is depressed and needs to find his art – she indulges him. He essentially goes on to laze around taking drugs with his best friend Hiro, bemoaning the fact that he loves Candy so much, while having fun with Romy – and then they all end up at a party that turns into an orgy, even Candy- and he can’t handle it.

He reminded me very much of a Murakami protagonist – Toru in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle who ends up sitting in a well. He was rather an empty shell and was difficult to engage with, although I quite enjoyed that novel. Thirlwell’s 30ish main character is also hollow – but is also downright indulgent and silly. I felt so sorry for his wife Candy – she must have known he was lying through his teeth to her.

Because, to put this another way, it turns out that in the perfect marriage where you are absolutely trusted there is no end to what you can do. For lying only distils its gorgeousness if you are doing it to the person who wakes up next to you every day, who believes they know your inner heart more than they know their own, that’s the perfect person to lie to because only when you lie to someone like that can you create a perfect lie, … Unfortunately, it leaks all over the picture.

Irritatingly, Thirlwell’s prose does have its moments, but I disliked the narrator so much I couldn’t continue – I gather I’ve missed a whole lot of shenagigans involving a hold-up and gunshots by giving up, but life’s too short. The title was very apt though (with an ironic emphasis on cute). DNF

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thanks):
Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell. Pub Jonathan Cape, Jan 2015, Hardback, 368 pages.

Charlie Mortdecai, volume two

After You With The Pistol by Kyril Bonfiglioli

mortdecai 2
This is going to be a quick post, as you shouldn’t read the second novel in this delightfully Un-PC comedy crime series until you’ve read the first – they follow directly on from each other, but I’m not giving anything away with this quote from near the beginning…

To this day I still do not know where it was that I awoke nor, indeed, how long I had been separated from my cogitative faculties, bless them. But I think it must have been somewhere awful in the North-West of England, like Preston or Wigan or even Chorley, God forbid. The lapse of time must have been quite three or four weeks: I could tell by my toenails, which no one had thought to cut. They felt horrid. I felt cross.

BonfiglioliCharlie Mortdecai, art dealer and aristo-gentleman bon viveur, all-round reprobate and womaniser, first appeared in Don’t Point That Thing At Me which I reviewed over at Shiny New Books – so head on over there to get a feel for it in detail.

First published in the late 1970s, if you crossed Jeeves and Wooster with James Bond, extra double-entendres and a total disregard for political correctness, you’ll get the idea. If you’re easily offended, these books are probably not for you…

The second novel sees Charlie Mortdecai, art dealer and aristo-reprobate forced to get married, thus getting into even more improbable scrapes, this time involving the a spy school for women and Chinese tongs…

You can also learn a surprising amount from Charlie – the following is actually true – I checked:

‘Please salt the eggs for me,’ I said by way of conceding defeat, ‘I always overdo it and spoil them. And do please remember, the fine, white pepper for eggs, not the coarse-ground stuff from the Rubi.’ (Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice once told me why waiters of the better sort call that huge pepper-grinder a ‘Rubi': it is in honour of the late, celebrated Brazilian playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. I don’t understand it myself because my mind is pure.)

I chuckled all the way through this book, and shall be reading the rest in the series before the film comes out in the spring.  Yes, if this sounds like your kind of thing, you need to get cracking in case the film is a dud. (9.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t Point That Thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1)
After you with the pistol: The Second Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 2)
Something Nasty in the Woodshed: The Third Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 3)
All by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks – around 200 pages.

“We gotta get out of this place…”

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how-to-build-a-girlI’ll start up front by saying that this book is one of the sweariest, wankiest, shaggiest stories I’ve ever read, and it’s narrated by a teenager who is just fourteen at its outset. The first lines set the tone…

I am lying in bed, next to my brother, Lupin.
He is six years old. He is asleep.
I am fourteen. I am not asleep. I am masturbating.

To be fair, it’s a biggish bed, and she does put a ‘little, friendly Berlin Wall’ of a pillow between them – but still! So, if you can’t bear swearing, wanking and shagging in a novel, this might not be the book for you.

… But you would miss the point, for underneath all its bravado is a story about a girl’s coming of age. A teenager in a large working-class family that lives on benefits in a part of the world where most people are in the same boat, told in Moran’s typical earthy style.

… However, although Moran insists that her heroine is not her, despite coming from a similar background, if you’ve read her part rant, part memoir How to be a Woman, you’ll be familiar with her own lifestory and you will find this novel repetitive. Luckily, although I love her journalism, I’m one of the few who hasn’t read that book, so this novel was sort of new for me.

It’s 1990, and Johanna Morrigan (Johanna with an ‘h’ as in Dylan’s song – never acknowledged, but surely chosen specifically), wants to escape the poverty she’s stuck in, she wants to be someone – in London not Wolverhampton. Her ageing hippy dad wants to be famous too, he’s never let his vision of being a rock star vanish – he’ll force his audition tape onto anyone, but no-one listens. Her older brother Krissi is at that shutting himself away stage of adolescence, her mum is worn out with looking after the twins and is clearly suffering from post-natal depression. They live on the breadline, buoyed by her dad’s disability benefit.  Johanna dreams of a future…

… I don’t want to be noble and committed like most women in history were – which invariably seems to involve being burned at the stake, dying of sadness or being bricked up in a tower by an earl. I don’t want to sacrifice myself for something. I don’t want to die for something I don’t even want to walk in the rain up a hill in a skirt that’s sticking to my thighs for something. I want to live for something, instead – as men do. I want to have fun. The most fun ever. I want to start parting like it’s 1999 – nine years early. I want a rapturous quest. I want to sacrifice myself to glee. I want to make the world better, in some way.

To cut a long story short, she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a Goth-inspired ‘lady sex-adventurer’. As soon as she can, she leaves school, starts writing record reviews for a London rock newspaper and sets out to conquer the world through the media of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll. She undoubtedly has a good time – but does she like what she’s become?

You do want to like Johanna, however precocious she is. You may be a little envious of some of the things she gets up to as a teenager – just some! (Getting on the guest list as an 18 yr-old at the Marquee Club when my boyfriend agreed to do a roadie stint for a (Christian) prog-rock band back in 1978 is my claim to fame in the rock’n’roll department only – none of the other!).

The book, although a bit meandering, was easy to read but very rude of course. I particularly enjoyed the parts featuring Johanna and Welsh rocker and pissante John Kite, with whom she strikes up a true friendship. The problem is that Moran’s own story is always in the back of your mind, and I think I’d have preferred to read that. They say write about what you know, but we already know that in Moran’s case, so let’s hope her next fictional outing is less transparent – I’ll happily read it.  (6.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Jul 2014, Ebury, Hardback 345 pages.
How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, paperback.

P.S. Lyric quote from ‘We gotta get out of this place’ by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, performed by The Animals in 1965.

 

A May to December romance with strings…

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

January in JapanOnly reading from my TBR, I searched my shelves for books so that I could join in with January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List.  I could have chosen Murakami – but have had both good and bad experiences with him. It ended up being a choice between Out by Natsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa’s second novel – I chose Ogawa.

I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, review here, a couple of years ago. I was beguiled by that quirky yet serene novel, her debut. Hotel Iris has a similar air of aloofness in writing style, but the subject matter is in no way gentle like her debut …

Mari is a dutiful daughter, manning the desk at her family hotel, the Hotel Iris, situated in a Japanese seaside town. At seventeen, she is totally dominated by her mother who tells her she is beautiful, as every day she styles Mari’s hair into a traditional Japanese bun, held in place with camellia oil.

The book opens with a guest and the prostitute he’d brought back to the hotel causing a kerfuffle and being ejected. Mari is fascinated by the man’s voice. Later she sees him again and follows him. After a few days of stalking they strike up a conversation. He is a translator, and lives an ascetic life on the island off the coast.

The first shock is to find that he is a widower in his sixties, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Mari, she’s ready to fall in love.  The second shock is when she goes with him to the island, and the third is when he ties her up and subjects her to degrading acts which she submits to with increasing pleasure – but always managing to catch the ferry home before her mother wonders where she is.

Earlier that same day, I had been tied to a bed with iron rails that were ideal for securing my ankles and wrists. He had cut away my slip with a large pair of scissors. The blades had been sharpened to a fine edge, and the steel had a dark sheen. He snapped them open and closed in the air, as if to test the sharpness and savor the sound. Then he drew them straight up my body from my spread legs, and the slip fell away as if by magic.

The blades touched my abdomen. A cold shock ran through me, and my head began to spin. If he had pressed just a bit harder, the scissors might have pierced my soft belly. The skin would have peeled back, the far beneath laid bare. Blood would have dripped on the bedspread.

My head had been filled with premonitions of fear and pain. I wondered whether his wife had died like this. But as these premonitions became realities, pleasure also erupted violently in me. I knew now how I reacted at such a moment: my body grew moist and liquid.

I had read elsewhere that this book is rather unsettling, but I didn’t really expect it to be quite like the above. To see a young girl submit to this, however loving the administrator is, does not make for easy reading.

When the translator’s nephew, a mute (due to tongue cancer) young man a year or so older than Mari, arrives for a holiday this really does complicate things. As you might imagine, this leads to the final climax.

Although I was naturally concerned for Mari’s plight, I found it hard to warm to her, and I remained deeply suspicious of the translator all the way through, but on the other hand this tale could be described as a coming of age story for Mari – acting out her dark schoolgirl fantasies.  Still, once we see what he does to Mari, we have to wonder about his wife…

For such a dark and disturbing book, Ogawa’s prose, again translated by Stephen Snyder, is cool and always slightly aloof but it does reel you in.  This book was such a contrast to the happy serenity of The Housekeeper and the Professor.  I didn’t ‘enjoy’ reading Hotel Iris, but I was compelled to finish it though.  (6.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage paperback, 176 pages.

YA books and sex!

I wasn’t going to write a post featuring the book below as it was a DNF (Did not finish) for me, but it did raise questions and I wanted to ask your opinions, especially after I heard someone calling for debate on lowering the age of consent to 15 on the radio this morning …

My daughter, now 13, is getting into reading teen romances and has been a fan of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson diaries for a year or two now. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to introduce to her and came across the following book on a review list – the text description said 12+ …

When it happens by Susane Colasanti

when it happensThis is a book about a girl who is looking to find love – and has a clear idea of who will fit the bill, but ends up falling for the complete opposite. Set in NYC, senior year of high school, with the Battle of the Bands as a backdrop.

When it arrived there was a sticker on the front cover saying ‘Contains explicit content’. I visited the UK publisher’s website and there it says 14+, so I started to read the book to see what that was. I made it about a third of the way through, and skimmed the rest.

I found there was a lot of sex talk and it seemed that most of the characters were only after one thing which was more to do ‘it’ – sex, rather than find ‘it’ – love, although being a teen romance, that true love is found too in the end. OK – they are all in their senior year at High School, so the place is likely to be seething with sex, but there are references to girls doing it since they were 14 etc. Within the first few chapters, Sara, the virginal lead character was getting instruction on how to put a condom on – educational, yes, but any romance was spoiled.

Definitely one for older teens I thought.

Contrast that with …

Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

billy and me

The debut chicklit novel by the wife of McFly’s Tom. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with being the girlfriend of a teen heartthrob actor and the scrutiny that she as the WAG is exposed to. It’s pure fluff – chaste and charming, yet it is specifically marketed as chicklit.

I got sent a copy by Penguin (thank you), and after my 16yr old niece recommended it, I was more than happy to let Juliet read it, and she enjoyed it too.

* * * * *

I love reading YA fiction for myself now, but I usually stick to books with a fantastical element of some kind.  As a teenager, I went straight from children’s books to adult titles – there were few written for teens in the 1970s, but I got largely sucked into science fiction then.  The only romances I read as a teenager were the Regency ones of Georgette Heyer – so this is a new area for me, and I have to admit…

I’M CONFUSED!

Naturally, I want to encourage my daughter to explore and find books she wants to read for herself, (with just the occasional nudge from me). I don’t want to censor her reading – I think she has good taste in that regard, but I want to canvass your opinions too.

How is it that a teen book can be more explicit than chicklit?
Can you recommend any good teen authors who deal with sex in a less in your face way?
Or, am I too prudish and worrying too much?
Do share your thoughts!  Thank you.

* * * * *
To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Scholastic paperback.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback

Is That All There Is? …

All That Is by James Salter

all-that-is

I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature.  He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF.  I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went!  All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…

Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York.  He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…

Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.  He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.  In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline.  Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared.  Her smile was living, sincere.  We’ll leave soon, it said.  That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.

That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.

Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course.  But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…

Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean.  Phil keeps his apartment in New York though.  This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.

Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance.  Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance.  It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!

But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’  It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him.  The decades flow by.  Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.

Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short.  He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.

I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary.  All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)

* * * * *
I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.

 

A little London loving – 1960s style…

Georgy Girlby Margaret Forster

Margaret Forster is somehow one of those familiar authors, although I’ve read any of her books.  Over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve seen several of her books in shops; The Memory Box is a title that stuck in my mind.  Although I’ve no idea how old she is, or what she looks like, I didn’t associate her with the 1960s – untill I came across my late Mum’s copy of the paperback of Georgy Girl and discovered it was published in 1965!

Margaret ForsterIt turns out that Forster was born in 1938 and is married to The Beatles biographer Hunter Davies. Georgy girl was her third novel, and she’s written twenty five in total plus around a dozen books of biography, history and memoir. Her latest novel Isa and May was published in 2010, so one hopes there are more to come. So on to the book …

Margaret Forster novel Georgy Girl

Georgina is a big gangly girl. She is not very interested in her looks, and has never had a proper boyfriend  She’s a younger 1960s version of TV’s Miranda.  Her parents are the live-in housekeeper and valet of rich toff James who, unhappily married to Nelly, has treated George like the daughter he never had, but now has other designs on her.

‘… I’ve done a lot for you, George, and I’ll do a lot more. Give me a kiss.’
George dutifully pecked at him. He usually stood still and let her peck, but now he seized her and kissed her full on the mouth. His hands wandered up and down her body until her laugh sent them swiftly back to his sides.
‘What are you laughing at?’ he said, panting.
‘It’s so lovely,’ said George. She waltzed round him, spreading out her arms. ‘What more could a girl want than a devoted uncle who adores encouraging her to make an absolute idio of herself and then declares himself passionately. It just makes me feel so happy, Jimsy-Wimsy, to know I haven’t been reared in vain. No, I’ve been specially designed to satisfy the most fussy of perverts.’
James struggled not to strike her. Shakily, he mopped his lips with his handkerchief and cursed himself for touching her. He wanted her very much. He always had, ever since he had realized no one else saw how desirable she really was.

James goes on to offer her a contract to be set up as his mistress, paying for everything. Georgy plays for time before making the decision for she is enjoying her new-found freedom. Since she moved out, she has a job teaching dance to children, she has a one bedroom flat which she shares with Meredith, a violinist who is going out with Jos, a double bass player from Derbyshire.

Meredith and Jos’s relationship is based purely on sex. Jos knows it can’t last, Meredith being a renowned bed-hopper, and he can’t help looking at George…

Her mouth was too big and her jaw too heavy and that stupid pony tail didn’t help, but she wasn’t ugly. Her figure was about fifty times better than Meredith’s.
‘In fact,’ he said, ‘you just miss being beautiful.’

Things get complicated when Meredith gets pregnant. Jos feels he has to marry her, but as you might guess, she’s not the one he really wants…

Georgy Girl Film Poster

Georgy is a wonderful creation. She’s enjoying life, but you do feel that underneath she wants to be a homemaker. She’s waiting for her prince to come, and you sense it’s not going to be Jos either.

Many parts of this novel reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s books which would follow in the 1970s: from Georgy and Meredith sharing a bedroom like Freda and Brenda in The Bottle Factory Outing, to the complicated ménages of Sweet William. But Forster isn’t concerned in exploiting the comedy in Georgy’s situation as Beryl would do, instead we empathise with Georgy completely as she explores adult life. Georgy has the best of both worlds. In her early twenties, she has her independence, but she can always go home. Relations with her parents are a bit tense though with them being dependent on James for a living.

What I always find interesting in reading books from this period though is the sense of ‘carpe diem’ that pervades them.  The young things in these dramas may not be so far from the kitchen sink, but they do live for the moment, and that keeps  it fresh. This book was yet another discovery for me, leaving me hungry for more Forster. (8.5/10)

I’d also like to read a lot more novels set in the 1950s through to the 1970s, that means more Beryl, more Spark, more O’Brien for starters – I’m sure you can suggest some others of the same ilk for me to explore too.

I’d also like to see the 1966 film of Georgy Girl – with it’s all star cast.  Forster co-adapted the screenplay from her novel.  I shall leave you though with a clip of Australian band The Seekers singing the Oscar-nominated theme tune to the movie – are you all ready to sing along?

* * * * *
I inherited this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster, Vintage paperback, 176 pages.

 

A ‘Hardy’ Christmas for our Book Group

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

jude Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read – Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.

Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex.  Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.

It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford).  He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’

Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin.  Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor.  Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:

‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’

Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed!  Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.

I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad.  I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.

At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion.  We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty?  Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia.  In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …

 ‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’

We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.

On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.

We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era.  In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm.  Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution.  Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).

Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today.  Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.

Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes.  All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics

Serendipity makes this a timely read from And Other Stories…

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

I started reading this book around ten days ago, and was shocked and amused in equal measure – but I paused around a third of the way through to give in to the hype and read JK Rowling’s latest (see previous post here) – and  by the time I picked the book up again, a major sex scandal had broken, involving the now tattered reputation of a dead man who had been thought an unlikely hero, and rippling across the world of entertainment as more sexual harassment was revealed.

Sexual harassment is at the heart of this innovative satire, so it’s been a timely read.   However, it’s the means to an end, not the primary target in this novel.  Let me explain…

It’s back in the 1990s, and Joe is a salesman who has lost his mojo. He knows he can be the best, but only if he has the right product to sell in the right place. ‘He had hit rock bottom,’ and is reduced to living in a trailer alone with his masturbatory fantasies, when he’s not philosophising to himself about the art of selling.

…What he was thinking, as he watched the sea and the birds, was Look how strong the impulse is! Because you can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it will give them a better chance to get sex. You can sell people just about anything if you can convince them its a substitute for sex. The only thing you can’t sell is the actual thing itself. That is, obviously people sell it, but you can’t sell it without shame.
… if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to be a whole lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.

Joe comes up with the idea for forward-thinking companies (that are full of hot-blooded, testosterone-fuelled heterosexual salesmen) to outsource their sexual harassment policies. He will recruit special employees, each ‘a woman in a thousand’ who will be paid a lot extra for anonymously providing services when required, via a specially equipped bathroom cubicle which will present her naked bottom half to the selected male.  They are the ‘lightning rods’.

It’s outrageous!  It’s totally hair-brained!  You won’t be surprised though to hear that Joe finds a company brave dumb enough to try it out. It takes off, but things are never going to be simple, they’re only going to get more and more complicated.  How will Joe cope? Will it work? What sort of woman would want to be take part?

Corporate practices, management programmes, and outsourcing are what this novel is really about.  Nearing the end of the novel, you’ll almost believe it could really happen. You certainly sense the proprietorial pride in Joe, that despite his cod-philosophising whilst watching the birds, he has found an essential truth, (in the immortal words of M.Jagger & K.Richard, which seemed to fit):

“You can’t always get what you want 
But if you try sometimes you just might find 
You just might find, You get what you need” 

What makes this novel rather special is the language, as has been identified by the other reviews I’ve read too (see below).  Although it’s full of sex of a sort, it’s never prurient, the descriptions are deliberately non-sexy, dead-pan, typically in business speak. Having been through some management schemes in my former life working for a multi-national company, I could recognise some of the types involved in delivering the programmes, and it made me laugh, and be thankful that I don’t work there any more (apart from missing the salary that is).

What I found most interesting though, was the fact that the novel, which despite having a focus on oversexed straight men, was not a male fantasy, but a female satire, written by a woman.  The most powerful characters in the novel were the lightning rods who had their finger on the pulse of Joe’s scheme, and manipulated it and him for their own benefit. There are no easy answers to the questions that the story raises, and the author doesn’t attempt to provide them, she just helps us imagine what if …

This novel was very clever and extremely funny. I loved it. (10/10)

See also reviews by John Self, Alex in Leeds, and Follow the Thread.

* * * * *
I was sent this book to review by the publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. Pub in the UK Oct 2012 by And Other Stories, posh paperback, 297 pages.

Sex & Show-jumping – only in Rutshire!

Riders by Jilly Cooper.

I have never had a personal desire to get on a horse, but watching show-jumping on telly was a fixture that I looked forward to while growing up.

The Horse of the Year Show with the Puissance always ending with that gigantic wall getting higher and higher, the relay races, and the incredibly tight courses riden against the clock was a week of great viewing. The Hickstead Derby with the iconic Derby bank and swimming pool of a water jump was a must as a relief from tennis which tends to dominate June.  There were also Nations Cup events, where the teams had to ride each other’s horses.

Show-jumping back in the 1970s was full of real characters. Who could forget Harvey Smith, who on having won two Derbys on the trot made a ‘V’ sign to the judges. I always enjoyed watching the Irishman Eddie Macken who cut a dash with his wavy blond locks and green jacket on his horse Boomerang.  It is a shame that show-jumping has all but fallen off the TV schedules.

So, on to Riders by Jilly Cooper.  We’ll be discussing this 919 page chunkster at Book group next week, but as I have to pass the book on promptly to give one of our other members a chance to read it, I decided to write it up now, and will come back with the group’s reactions later to this unconventional choice of reading (for a book group in general that is).

Set in the Cotswolds, Riders is the first in Cooper’s ‘Rutshire Chronicles’ and was published in 1985.  It concerns just two things in its 340,000 words:  Show-jumping and Sex.  It’s a true bonk-buster – one of the originals, complete with an utter cad, toffs and comedy accents, a poor boy made good, with the added thrill of the show-jumping ring, however at its heart it really is a romance and you’re always hoping for a happy ending.

The main story concerns Jake Lovell, an orphan born of gypsy stock who ran away from school to learn about horses.  He wants to set up his own yard and jump horses, but he’s just a groom as the book opens and penniless with it.  Contrasting  with him is Rupert Campbell-Black, rich and charismatic, who beds every woman who crosses his path, unless they’re fat and ugly that is.  A champion show-jumper already, he’s not known for treating his horses with respect.  As it happens, Jake’s mother was the cook at Rupert’s prep-school, and Rupe was always nasty to Jake, so a rivalry is born.

Jake luckily manages to marry a rich, but plain, girl – Tory, who bankrolls his ambitions.  However their relationship is a loving one, well at first! Rupert goes after a rich American socialite, the ravishingly beautiful but brittle Helen.  He eventually gets her, but theirs is not to be a happy relationship, Rupe can’t cope with monogamy, and Helen finds it very difficult to lose her inhibitions.

After Rupert had come, with that splendid driving flourish of staccato thrusts which reminded Helen of the end of a Beethoven symphony, he fell into a deep sleep. Helen, lying in his arms, had been far too tense and nervous of interruption to gain any satisfaction.

It’s not all sex though, there are horses too. Tory’s younger sister Fenella is a promising show-jumper and could, if she tried harder, be picked for the British team with her horses Laurel and Hardy. Being still a teenager, she’s too interested in partying and Jake takes her to task…

‘You’re not going to make a fool of yourself at Olympia,’ he said.
‘I suppose Tory and Dino have been sneaking.’
‘They didn’t need to. One of the Olympic scouts was in Amsterdam. He said if Jesus Christ had ridden that donkey into Jerusalem the way you were riding Laurel and Hardy all week, he deserved to be crucified.’

Cooper engineers many crises and cliff-hangers to keep the gargantuan story moving.  There is a huge cast of other characters, most of whom are simply portrayed, and conform to  type, but fit well into the story. I particularly liked Billy, Rupe’s best friend who rises from being co-tormentor of Jake to being a decent chap and ace show-jumper too, and the only person who can keep Rupe in check, occasionally.  These show-jumpers are the equivalent of stadium rock stars in their world, on tour for ten months of the year, just touching base occasionally – unless they or the horses get injured that is.   Everything moves from Jake’s humble beginnings in the horsey world towards the major climax of him and Rupe starring at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

The writing is breezy, earthy and robust, with some swearing and obviously lots of raciness – I remember it being considered very naughty when it came out; of course many novels go far further these days. I do wish we could have reached the end around 300 pages sooner as 919 pages, even if easy to read does take time; but I have to confess that I really enjoyed this racy doorstop of a book!  I will no longer turn my nose up at Jilly Cooper books when I encounter them in bookcases on holiday, I’ll search them out instead, and she could become my guilty secret read.  (8/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Ridersby Jilly Cooper, Corgi paperback.