Friday, 29 July 2016

Review: The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George

Oh, dear.

One of the hardest lessons for readers to learn is that not all books are written for people like you. And, when I encounter books that are very much not for people me, I try to dodge the question and say nice things about how well they would suit the kind of people for whom they were written. I will speak at length about how clever the writer was being, how the they really hit what they were going for here. I will say anything, anything to avoid communicating the deep sigh of boredom as I turned each page, the way my face arranged itself into an expression of wry resignation.

Look, I like books. I don't actually like saying nasty things about them. Still, with that in mind...

The Little Paris Bookshop is a novel that needs to be reviewed in two parts. The first regards its borderline magical realist premise - that the protagonist, one Jean Perdu, has the remarkable gift of being able to see into people's souls and thereby styles himself a 'literary apothacary' - prescribing appropriate fiction to suit the malaise of his customers. The second concerns Perdu's own journey, and is an intense and personal exploration of grief, healing, blame and love.

This second part basically tried to be this song, and didn't quite manage it:

I'm not saying it's bad, alright, just that it isn't as good or profound as it wants to be. Going for emotion, it fell into saccharine, trying for the slow gradient of healing, it just went on far too long. All the same, it was heartfelt and it did have some nice bits.

The first bit? Oh. The first bit.


I fully agree with the premise that books are magic. I am on board utterly with the way they can heal us, move us, create us. To a great extent, I'm a person who has built myself from books; every experience in my life has had invisible hands holding mine, friends and enemies walking alongside me. Whether I am grieving, healing or changing, they have given me support, comfort, medicine.

But that is only a fraction of the magic of which books are capable.

The best books I have read had ripped me apart and left me to reconfigure the shattered, bloody pieces. The best books I have read have set me aflame, have argued with me, left me sleepless and wrangling with myself. These were not cures, they were crises, challenges. Books should not, art should not 'soothe our souls' - or not solely.

Perdu's literary apothacary, with its tender coddling of the sweeter side of human nature, deeply troubles me. He administers books like a sedatives, or as a course of treatment to send a life back along its correct course - a course which is parternalist, conservative and tends towards comfort over ecstacy, 'self-care' over revolution.

Furthermore, Perdu is a purest. He insists that there is a 'right' way to read to get the best effect, that gluttons like me who tear through novels at breakneck speed, high on literary thrills, are missing the point entirely. Yet, despite this, the 'cures' suggested in the novel (and the appendices) are exercises in critical laziness. However 'tongue-in-cheek' the intention, it is a model which situates readers as the passive recipients of the 'medication' - one does not argue with the writer, one merely absorbs. It is not possible that these books can cause anything other than readerly submission to authorial intent. Moreover, the authorial intent which is assumed is the kind that can only arise from a shallow, unquestioning appraisal of the text. Take this example: 

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials trilogy.
For those who occasionally hear imaginary voices and believe they have an animal soulmate.

... did we... did we even read the same books? Why even include it if that's the best you can do? To get even so far as the barest surface reading, how about, "For those who prone to blind obedience to ideological causes"? or, "For children with a tendency to lionise the adults in their life"? Or even, "For those lacking faith in their own strength."

To suggest that books are solely designed for comfort, solace and escapism is to shut down the real worth of reading - that it allows us to imagine better worlds, that it permits us to see what is wrong with our own. Reading is dangerous - that's why facists burn books.

So, if Perdu's motives are suspect, his methods are rank with snobbery - he gives an elderly neighbour craving a disposible bonk buster The Picture of Dorian Grey, which - while yes, racy, sexy and as glorious as hell - is a book of such ambiguous, delicious poison that I would be very careful to whom I recommended it.

Actually, the more I think about that example, the more sinister it seems to me.

Yes. So, can I say anything nice about this one?

Alright: in among all the eye-rolling, the tedium and the fact that, Jesus Christ, why are there no women in this book who aren't just shining beacons to guide the men, there's actually a nice little bit on nascent polyamory. It's never called by that name, and it gets lost among an awful lot of heteronormative glowing love-sex suggesting that the reality of our gender identity is directly proportional to the state of arousal of our genitals. (Seriously, if I never read that snogging someone and getting a hard on makes someone 'a man again', that will be quite soon enough). All the same: there it is.

Manon, Perdu's ethereal-manic-pixie- extraordinare, is a woman who seems quite capable of loving more than one person and making it work for herself. When she finds two men she actually loves, she even wants to introduce them, hoping the three of them can be friends, that they can lay altogether the sense of rivalry, jealously, the expectation that this must be a case of either-or. In a book that is so conservative and unchallenging in almost every other way, catching just a tatter of radical pragmatism is something like a jewel glimpsed briefly in the gutter as you're nodding off at the end of a long, awful day.

I'm quite alright to leave it there - it wasn't meant for me - but it might just catch someone with a glance, a bright edge, a possibility that may just help them. And that, Nina George, is how fiction cures people. By serendipity.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Review: The Talisman, Jonathan Aycliffe

I've been on a bit of a horror bender lately. Not going to stop any time soon. So, once again, courtesy of the glorious local library we have The Talisman by Jonathan Aycliffe, a book which is in equal parts M R James, H P Lovecraft and ... the Omen.

What seems to be one of Aycliffe's quirks as a writer is to write a little note introducing his novels to long time readers. These notes are conversational, endearing and really quite bewildering to someone who has only stumbled upon his work recently. The one that prefaces The Talisman warns that his publisher suggested he try to caputre a slightly younger audience, so it might be a bit different to his other work.

Now, I admit that when this was first published, although I was indeed still in the literary equivalent of short trousers, I probably wasn't the 'younger audience' to whom he was pitching, however I have to ask: this novel is about Tom - a middle aged museum employee and academic - attempting to protect his adoptive son and disabled wife from the nefarious influence an ancient Mesopotamian artifact. The plot takes us to Iraq, the British Museum, and the hell that is organising a small child's birthday party.

What kind of younger audience was he trying to capture?

That said, I loved this book. It was a perfectly well constructed, effective horror novel. The stakes were just right, the air of foreboding impressive. It would make a fabulous television - maybe a BBC adaptation featuring one of their less-cheekboney male stars and released in time for the doldrums of the Christmas holidays.

Yes, the appearance of a token spiritual Sufi character was perhaps not as well handled as it could have been, and one must ask if the premise of 'ancient evil from dread temple in Old Babylon' is perhaps a trope that we could do without, but in terms of story - and indeed, research - Aycliffe acquits himself well. It doesn't surprise me to learn he's well qualified in Persian, Arabic and Islamic studies.

What's more, his portrayal of Nicola's blindness was quite refreshing. Aycliffe's narration deals quite pragmatically with the adjustments that need to be made to one's life to cope with long-term disability, and the frustrations often attentdent upon it, without ever undermining her intelligence and independence. Aycliffe even plays upon society's ableism in the reactions surrounding Nicola's pregnancy. Not being disabled myself, I can't comment on the precise pros and cons of the way it was handled, but it felt both realist and sympathetic, and that was a really nice touch.

That said, this isn't a world shattering novel, or even one I'll revisit very often. It was merely a well put together and very enjoyable piece of horror - and there's nothing at all wrong with that.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Review: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

I've been reading a fair few children's books lately as a means of keeping a half-eye out for things the Sprogs are going to enjoy in a few years. (Yes, my children are both unrepentent bookworms. Are you surprised?)

It's a bit of an odd sensation, tbh, reading by proxy in this way. One of the reasons I moved away from children's books was because they weren't exactly satisfying me. When I found one I enjoyed, even loved, there was always the creeping disappointment of wanting more - more rigour, more darkness and emotional insight. Now that I'm not merely reading for myself, it feels as though I'm looking with two sets of eyes, one pair belonging to a jaded adult, and one pair that are trying to reconstruct how this story might have made me feel then. 

Take Meggie, for example, Inkheart's protagonist and an archetypal 'good kid'. As an adult, I find her and her worldview more than a touch saccharine. Sure, you root for her, but you wish she'd have a dash more ruthlessness and pragmatism. She's like a butterfly guaranteed to get her wings crushed.

As a child, I would have loved her.

Likewise, Capricorn lacks the ugliness I would expect from a truly impressive villain. Sure, he's monstrous and capable of some supremely cruel acts - but most of these are merely hinted at, contained within the back story. The specific evils he commits seem a little lacklustre in human terms -  and there is very little real sense of his victims to give threat to the protagonists. As someone who binged A Song of Ice and Fire last year, I can assure you: Gregor Clegane he is not.

Well, of course he's bloody not. THIS IS A CHILDREN'S BOOK, ALYS.

See what I mean?

Once I can get past that weirdness, it's quite an astonishingly adult read. I've read some of Funke's other works and I'm always impressed by how utterly ruthless and forthright she can be in many ways. In Inkheart you have a motherless child who is dispassionate about her father's wild hunger to save his wife, a mercenary who made himself a monster to gain approval from an abusive father figure, an older woman who has been stunted by her parent's inattention. Without ever slipping from the warm, slightly reassuring prose of a children's adventure novel, Funke lifts a stone on a whole world of human pain and darkness. Her touch is incredibly light, letting naïve readers slip over some of her finest work - the ugliness of the adult world and complexity of the human character.

More than that, she holds her compassion intact. Writers are murderous bastards, after all, much known to cackle over the demise of their most beloved characters. But by blending the real and the fictional in the way that she does in this novel, Funke over-writes the the blasé attitude some of us have towards fictional death. The conceit of the novel helps with this - sure, the death scene was a real tear-jerker, you were very proud of it. Now look into the eyes of the character you wrote out, and explain it to him.

As such, there is a real integrity to the relative gentleness of the novel. By heightening the internal stakes in the way she does, there is less need for the death and mayhem that other writers use - the threat of it is enough. If an adult reader is left unconvinced that there was ever any real threat, that seriousness of her writing makes it clear that this decision is not one she took lightly. That if she choses to kill a character, believe me, she will do it.

And it will devastate you.