Review – Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests

I have to admit to doing something very shameful when I read Sarah Waters latest novel – something I’ve always resisted doing in the past, no matter how tempting it was. I had a peek at the end. To be honest, I did it because I was so utterly on the edge of my seat that I thought I could end up a nervous wreck if I didn’t check. So in self-defence, it was an attempt to save my own sanity.

Sarah Waters has compared her narrative style to the literary equivalent of a roller coaster: a carefully managed pace of narrative which steadily climbs to cliff-hangers, before whisking the reader off at a breath neck tempo. The Paying Guests was no exception. As her two lovers, Frances and Lillian take ever wilder risks, I found myself biting my nails, turning the pages faster and faster, desperate to know if they’d make it to the end in one piece. In the end I couldn’t hold back. I tried not to look, honest but, well…it was just stronger than me.

In this novel, Waters focuses on the disenchantment of Britain emerging from the first world war. As Having absorbed the loss of her father and brothers, Frances Wray ‘falls into her role’ as her mother’s carer, doing her best to keep up the appearance of affluence and respectability which they had enjoyed before the war. Frances staves off memories of a wild past and a former lover as she wrestles with her daily chores, persuading herself that support for her bereft mother must come before all. But that fragile wall of faux gentility comes crashing down when she takes on tenants from ‘the clerk classes’ – Lillian and Leonard Barber – and finds herself gradually sucked into an all consuming and dangerous love affair with Lillian.

In many respects, Waters’ latest novel could be seen as a study of manners, an exploration of the meltdown of the British class system following the aftermath of the Great War. London proves a cold house for working class veterans whose valour on the battle fields is forgotten by authorities keen to restore their old privileges. And very private matters become very public scandals against this nervous backdrop of social unrest and displacement.

‘The Paying Guests’ bears all the hallmarks of Sarah Waters’ writing at its finest – a deep compassion for her characters, attention to historical detail and a plot which propels the reader towards a shocking and emotionally-wrought finale.

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Why I hate ‘The Alchemist’

Obviously I am very very late aboard the Paulo Coelho boat. I mean like almost 30 years too late. And I realise that a lot of water has passed under a lot of bridges since The Alchemist was first published and many things have been said of it – everything from it being a manual for life, to a cynical exercise in emotional manipulation. So there was no way I was going to approach it from an objective stance.

To be honest, the only reason why I read it at all was because a student picked it for our school reading circle. I’d already made up my mind against it, simply on the – perhaps rather petty grounds – of Coelho’s unconditional attack on James Joyce. ‘Ulysses is a twit,’ he stated in a Guardian interview back in 2012. ‘It is pure style.’ It is even ‘harmful to literature.’ Having attacked the single book I would ever take to a desert island, it was on the cards that I wasn’t going to be impressed with Coelho’s own work.

In fact, in the end it wasn’t simply that I wasn’t impressed. I was disgusted. If ever a book represented the self-indulgent armchair philosophising of a privileged middle class author writing for an equally privileged western audience then this is it. What I found myself thinking was, if Coelho were to distribute his book amongst the survivors of the recent Nepali earthquake, or to give it to an infertile woman who is desperate for children, or to distribute a few sample copies amongst the victims of Islamic State atrocities, I wonder what the reaction would be? I wonder if they would be so eager to absorb his ultimate message of personal legends and quests in which, if we are only prepared to believe in the soul of the world, then everything will change?

Of course, there is a get out clause for that in the book. It comes right at the end when our nameless hero declares ‘It is we who nourish the Soul of the World, and the world we live in will be either better or worse, depending on whether we become better or worse.’ (155) Now I’m not denying human responsibility here. I’m not some determinist who thinks that we are all passively carried along by life and shit just happens. But those chances which are available to our Andalucían shepherd boy are simply not the opportunities available to everyone everywhere. And in this drippy hippy idealism of ‘you can be whatever you want to,’ I read the same privileged sensibilities that I’ve found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of freedom, or, conversely in the complacency of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard where he writes ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, /And waste its sweetness on the desert air.’ Ostensibly this latter is the antithesis of Coelho’s message of hope for all. But I believe it draws from the same wells of utter neglect for the sufferings of others. The result is different, the motivation is the same – in all cases the authors are in a position to generalise and make value judgements based on their own positions as members of a very white and very male elite.

I make this last assertion because the other thing that really irritated me about the book is just how male-oriented it is. Just two women make any real appearance in the story, and both emerge as mere extensions tothe boy’s personal legend. There is the baker’s daughter who gets forgotten fairly quickly, and there is Fatima, the girl he falls in love with but whom he leaves to pursue his personal legend. And what do we learn of Fatima’s personal legend? While the boy is out commanding the wind and sun, seeking out truth, discovering his treasure, Fatima awaits his return because ‘She knows that men have to go away in order to return. And she already has her treasure: it’s you. Now she expects that you will find what it is you’re looking for.’

There is absolutely no sense in this book that Fatima might have her own legend to pursue which makes her independent of the boy, or indeed a rounded character with hopes and fears in her own right. The story simply reinforces a western humanist male vision which has existed for centuries and which excludes the deprived, the marginalised and the weak while foregrounding the rights of a privileged few who can luxuriate in the knowledge that they are somehow spiritually and intellectually on a higher level. So much for Coelho’s mantra of independence, personal responsibility and self-help.

Review – Neil Gaiman – American Gods

If it were possible to give a book an extra star for pure brilliance, I’d give it to American Gods. On so many levels, it works – as a modern day fable of American life, as a book which asks some fundamental questions about who we are and why, or rather how, we believe, and ultimately as a slippery eel of a story that messes expertly with the readers mind.

Gaiman himself admits in his preface that this novel is ‘big and odd and meandering.’ And in this respect, I found myself drawing parallels with works from the Irish literary canon with their subversive, wandering narratives. Which is kind of odd, because this is a book about America. Or is it?

Yes, it throws into relief many people’s take on the current state of America, with its mosaic of cultural identities gradually morphing into a bad lands drained of the old values, dependent upon the modern ‘gods’ of commerce, technology and media. However – spoiler alert #1 – Gaiman’s point is rather that nostalgia for a spiritually self-contained past may prove just as deluded.

The book offers – spoiler alert #2 – one of the best double bluffs I’ve ever come across in a work of fiction. Without overloading the reader with minutiae, it constructs a detailed and very immediate sense of modern day America. And Gaiman seamlessly integrates myth and reality to create a kind of hyper-reality, an American which is at once strange and familiar.

There is no sense of tedious moralising either. Gaiman’s narrative unfolds with perfect pacing, panache and heaps of dark, mordant wit. An absolute must!

poetry – Brussels, Mid-November

I don’t really write poetry anymore. I guess I’m just not disciplined enough to keep my ideas within such tight boundaries and remain so focussed. However, about ten years ago I went through a stage of writing several poems.

This one followed a visit to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, which houses my favourite painting – The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. There are a number of reasons why I love this piece of art. First and foremost, it’s the narrative that lies behind it – the fact that Charlotte Corday had murdered one of the most outspoken of all revolutionary leaders in his bath, that she herself would be sent to the guillotine for this, and that David sat there and painted the work with the corpse still fresh in front of him. I’m also fascinated, however, with the way in which the artist painted Marat as a martyr, his towel almost like a halo around his head, the politician’s famous skin complaint painted out of the picture. And in this respect The Death of Marat works as a clear piece of revolutionary propaganda – ‘revolution’s reportage.’

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Marat_assassinated_-_Google_Art_Project_2

Brussels, Mid-November

Wind and trees at war in the royal park.

The traffic fraught, we cross

The road, and enter the Musées Royaux.

Inside lies art, immured against the cold’s siege,

Rodin’s thinker keeps his head below the breeze,

Magritte’s impudence rebukes the weather.

***

Can all art escape the chill?

Marat wrinkles in his bath

The act of crime so fresh it seems

That blood lies wet upon the canvas.

One pale limp arm extends below the tub

Reaching for David, the public, us.

***

Revolution’s reportage?

A blast of icy, time-soaked air?

But clutching his judicial pen

Corpse is poised with cloth-crowned head.

Behind him the light leaks away

Its absence swirling round Corday.

Hannac – Acknowledgements and Background

Wattpad has been the home for my stories for the past couple of years. However, as I’m now participating in the KDP author program on Amazon, I’ve had to strip them down to sample chapters. Hannac will be coming down tomorrow (Tuesday 5th May) so I thought I’d just take this opportunity to thank all the great writers and readers on Wattpad who helped me with advice, critique and encouragement.

Acknowledgements
I see publishing on Wattpad as a collaborative effort. This is because whenever people comment, critique or make suggestions it gives writers the opportunity to introduce plot changes, to test out new ideas and to improve their story-writing skills. Hal and Hannac would have been completely different books if it hadn’t been for all the contributions made by other people on Wattpad. So I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me. If I miss anyone out, please forgive me! And let me know.
Massive thanks to @RobMay and @VictorBruneski. Both of you guys started reading Hal when I first posted it on Wattpad in spring 2013 and it was your encouragement which persuaded me to continue here. You’re always positive about the aspects of the story that you like and you never hold back if something doesn’t work. And I firmly believe that it’s books like Dragon Killer and McConnell House which really raise the bar for other writers on Wattpad.
I’d also like to thank the queen of critique herself, @WyldPatienz. I always feel ashamed about my own half-assed comments on other people’s work because you put so much time and effort into critiquing. The ideas and dialogue you’ve shared with me have been invaluable. And I have to admit the gritty realism of your own writing has definitely rubbed off on my own. Of course, there’s not quite so much blood-letting, gore, vomit and angst in Hal as in The TwiceBorn. But it’s getting there 😉
On the critiquing front, I also have to say huge thanks to @marchmccarron. It was one of her suggestions which totally transformed the final chapters of Hannac. And I think she’s finally persuaded me that those POV switches are really not working. So I’ll be going back through both books and fixing those + cutting out the large sections of exposition in the first chapters of Hal. I have to recommend March’s book Division of the Marked – it’s high-calibre fantasy writing.
So many people have offered me great insights, suggestions and encouragement:
@Aecnboo, @AgnesdeOcampo, @amandakherron, @amyryde1, @AndiMartinez3, @Aradarian4, @ArtIsMe, @ashonion, @Avylinn, @Avengingnerd, @booksxbooks, @becam24, @bkaur2186, @chacehuffman, @charleshaywood33, @cashmanga, @DallasCabiad, @DeanCMoore (for some fantastic critique and for sharing his own work), @DebbieRenzi, @dolly_gem (for the kind words and encouragement), @EeNz04, @EliSmith9, @ElizabethSumner (for reading the first draft and then looking at me as if I were mad), @Emanon_01, @Essibua, @EyeBags12, @FlashReader, @Frazzer (for making sure Apolle’s side of the story isn’t missed out), @frogonwheels, @9496222gaby, @Galabitorix, @gqfromme, @graeme11, @greendrake1, @gummiebearsyo, @halloweennights (for wonderful words of encouragement), @HarryMcAdam (for such  kind comments), @h0n3y5un5h1n3, @horseloverperson, @hey-its-bat-girl, @idobelieveinfairies1, @iiitiii, @IJustGotPaid, @IllusionistsFolly, @imdbadass, @InfiniteSkies, @jainpiscean, @JayVictor, @JoannaSweet, @joeyzach (for involvement and encouragement. Hope you’re still around, Joey), @JohnGunningham (for such extensive critique), @JWPThackray (for the advice on duelling and for sharing your own wonderful stories), @karimdar, @KatieRhodes3, @kaylaes52, @kazaluv, @kissnthel, @Kystra, @Lazarus, @leftybeme, @lilchicken11, @littlebudveisser, @Lookatthat, @maddyXP, @madeleine_smith,  @MaxLambon, @MaryanneVivian, @MeaganHarris, @MegHuxley, @Melanctha,  @MidsummerCrimson, @Mighty658, @MiriThompson, @Modestnotamouse19, @mooniva, @Narelon, @NatashaPutter, @NellyHernandez,  @NickHanson3, @OfficialCriticReview, @OriginalAubrey, @outaprintwriter (for the interview opportunity and for sharing your own beautiful stories), @Pantuteros (for the no-holds-barred critique), @p-dop12,  @potato_lover_YA, @PrincessKyrissaen, @radar67, @ramior0221, @reconis, @RedWritingHood09,  @Revi11, @rmpalmer, @RobinFinesilver (for enduring my endless self-promo tweets), @Romantic26, @SallySlater (for encouraging and for the recs), @sandyboy2412, @SarahBatt, @sasa_lee, @scintillator (for giving me great encouragement at the start), @SentofOsiris (for the amazing pics), @SHACIA, @Shadowskill, @ShadowWalker4, @ShockedSunglow,  @SilverStonexx, @smaoineamh, @SMC_Scookie (for a fantastic critique of chapter one), @SoldierofSodom (for great music tips and the enthusiasm), @stacy_sheen, @tahilah, @TessPimsner (for reminding me of my age ;)) , @TheAlias, @thekels, @TheMaskedCritique, @TheOrangutan (for great support and help with the featuring), @thewolfandthemoon (for some truly encouraging comments), @tjgarrett (for helping with the hook), @UnknownPoet, @valdave123, @VengefulAkiri (for so much enthusiasm and excitement), @Viperbigdog,  @waraiseirei, @WarriorPrincess1000, @williew, @Willow105, @WinnipegWhiskers, @Words_are_Weapons (for great critique and for Scottish independence ;)),  @Yisabis,  @YzabelGinsberg (for great dialogue on all things literary) @LukeFranceMontgomery for the kind comments 🙂
Background
I’m not too sure where the ideas for Hal came from. I suspect they were just lurking around in the murky depths of my subconscious and I decided to get rid of them by inflicting them on other people. But some elements of the story have a very clear link with things I’ve read or with places I’ve been to. If I could, I would rather have written this story as historical fiction. And in fact, there is a precedent for female duellists – particularly in French history. In particular, the 17th century opera singer Julie d’Aubigny had a reputation for being a real wild child – duelling, drinking and hopping into bed with men and women. The problem was that even that historical context didn’t quite fit the story I wanted to tell, which is why I decided in the end to work with a fantasy world made up of a range of different historical periods. So there’s a bit of 17th century France in there, but there’s also a bit of Norman feudalism, Ancient Rome, Anglo-Saxon England – it’s basically a mix of eras and epochs.
Because Hal is so unpredictable, I needed to fix her up with a lover who is a bit calmer, cooler and at the end of the day more sophisticated – hence Meracad. But very often characters were just a means to an end – so it’s not that I wanted to create a character with a particular personality, more that they had to fulfil a specific purpose in the plot and their personality came afterwards.
As for places, I felt like Colvé had to have more of a French/Italian feel to it and the North (Hannac/Dal Reniac) had to feel more like the northern parts of the British Isles. I set Hannac on a moor-swept plateau as this reminded me of the part of England that I’m originally from – the Peak District. However, the idea for the Eagles’ Nests came from a defensive chain of forts in southern Poland which are called Orle Gniazdo – The Eagles Nests – and are a series of castles built of limestone. Some other Polish elements in the story are of course people’s names – Magda, Marta and Marec are all Slavic in origin and Pæga’s guards, who I based on the Polish-Hungarian hussars.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling)

http://www.amazon.com/Cuckoos-Calling-Cormoran-Strike-Book-ebook/dp/B00AA20E5Y/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

So here’s where I admit that I’ve never read a single Harry Potter novel. Not one. And for some reason I can’t bring myself to do so now. I feel the moment has passed me by – it’s like never having watched Dirty Dancing or eaten Sushi. You reach a point where you just decide the moment has gone.
I picked up this story, however, because a student was writing a paper on it and I decided to give it a go. And for many reasons, I loved it. It’s pacy, packed with twists and I felt I really liked Coromoran Strike – a man who has troubles enough of his own even while he’s in the business of solving other people’s problems. The denouement came as a genuine surprise, and I loved the way ‘Galbraith’ built up a very vivid picture of contemporary London which was crammed but not overburdened with well placed detail.
The only reason that I gave it 4 stars and not 5 is simply because I found some of the killer’s actions a bit unbelievable. He/she (no spoilers in this review!) appears to have contrived a murder rather than to have acted out of impulses I could recognise. But to be honest, I tend to end up thinking that about every thriller I read, from Agatha Christie to Val McDermid, so it’s not necessarily a reflection on the quality of ‘Galbraith’s’ fiction. And if it’s an action packed detective story that you’re after, with a sympathetically drawn main character and an intriguing narrative then I strongly recommend ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’