I’m still working on my TBR. Here’s what I’ve been reading.
The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes
This is kind of … meant to be a thriller, I think? It’s got a very portentous / titillating “oh bad things have happened and more bad things will happen and if only I had known” tone to it that I felt promised more than it actually delivered. The basic premise is that the grief-stricken narrator (we learn fairly early on her fiancé has been killed—in the sense of stabbed in the street, rather than this being any kind of mystery, although the details of it come out slowly) who used to be a promising theatre director but has moved to Edinburgh in order to take up a post at a semi-gothic though well-intentioned pupil referral centre. This is position she is no way qualified for but she gets due to the intervention / kindness / nepotism of an old university tutor. She apparently teaches more than one class, but the only one we’re invited to care about her is most troubling: five notably difficult students that she manages to partially engage by making them read Greek tragedy. Naturally they spend a lot of time talking about big themes like revenge and redemption and fate and self-sacrifice.
It’s kind of obvious where this as all going – the book opens by coyly promising a monstrous act – so the questions that remain are who and how and why. It’s quite a cheap device, but a compelling one, and I pretty much read the book in one sitting. I don’t have enough Ancient Greek points (not having received that kind of education) to be fully aware of the extent to which the book uses the devices of the plays it references to tell its own story, but there’s definitely an air of inevitable doom that felt all Greek tragedy to me.
But, in general, I found the whole thing a bit incoherent and ultimately tepid. The narrator’s sections are interspersed with excerpts from the diary of one of her students and I found these especially unconvincing—for me, the voice didn’t ring true, but I’m aware that’s a vague and wildly subjective comment to make. Similarly, I found this character pretty woolly—she was more a collection of traits around which a thriller could be built (obsessive! clever! alienated! potentially inclined to violence! maybe a lesbian!) than a fully put-together portrait of an actual person.
I was also kind of … expecting more twist, somehow. The narrator is this slightly grief-deadened, distant figure (even when she’s directly telling you stuff) so I was constantly assuming a degree of unreliability that may or may not have been there. And maybe that was the point but unreliable unreliability is one step too meta, even for someone who loves their meta as much as I do. The book consistently presents us with evidence that not only is the narrator’s judgement impaired (she tells us so repeatedly) but that her self-perception is distorted. She’s constantly insisting she’s doing a crap job and other people are constantly telling her she isn’t – I mean, to a degree that’s borderline annoying, because there’s nothing more frustrating than secondary characters who exist solely to insist on things about a protagonist that you yourself don’t ever witness. Also, having some experience of the issues involved around pupil referral units, I was inclined to feel she was, in fact, doing a crap job. So anyway, the upshot of all this unreliable unreliability was that I genuinely thought the narrator was going to have actively manipulated a vulnerable teenager into the “monstrous” act. And the narration itself was a further act of manipulation of the reader.
Except … no? This did genuinely seem to be the story of a grief-stricken woman who is the inadvertent recipient of a Grecian act of retributive violence enacted on her behalf by a teenager she has inspired by her teachin’.
Also in a mid-Brexit world I am not comfortable with portrayals of Eastern Europeans as wife-abusing thugs who murder nice white lawyers in the street.
Development Hell: The NXT Story by Michael Sidgwick
So, um. Cementing my status as a huge dork, this is a book about the, err, development of the WWE’s developmental division, NXT. You probably know right now whether this book is of any interest to you at all, and the answer for probably 98% of my readers is ‘uh no’ so I’ll keep my comments brief: if you’re interested in the development of the WWE’s developmental division, this is quite good. It’s smoothly written, engaging, knowledgeable and passionate about its subject. I would say, it’s more about the creation of NXT as a brand, than about NXT itself, if that distinction makes sense. While it does focus on some of the most significant NXT milestones (the emergence of a credible women’s division among them) I was honestly expecting a bit more about NXT itself, and bit less about the wrestling landscape that created the need for it. But, y’know, I was still interested. In short: if this book is the sort of thing that seems like the sort of thing you’d like then … it probably is the sort of thing that you’d like.
Lily by Patricia Gaffney
Oh. My. God.
This is on so much crack I cannot even. It’s pure, unadulterated, ridiculous melodrama. Which I kind of simultaneously enjoyed and was made uncomfortable by. So I guess how much pleasure you’re likely to derive from Lily is directly connected to what you find problematic, and the degree to which you can put aside problematic things in the name of balls-to-the-wall exuberance.
So, where to start? The book opens with Lily Cinderella-ing for her wicked uncle and her wicked uncle’s horrible son. Said wicked uncle wants her to marry said horrible son for reasons he doesn’t quite articulate – but, of course, it later turns out she has an inheritance he wants to snaffle. She’s sufficiently reluctant to marry … I think the dude’s name is Lewis, Lewis Soames. Which, y’know, I would not want to marry a man named Lewis Soames either. Anyway, in order to avoid this miserable future, she ends up pokering her uncle in the head and running away with basically nothing. Because she’s a heroine. And that’s what heroines do.
While hiding at an inn, convinced she’s murdered her uncle and is going to be arrested and hanged, she overhears The Worst Woman In The Universe (who also has a horrible son, by the way) lamenting the fact she can’t get any servants to work for her. Not surprisingly considering she is blatantly The Worst Woman In The Universe and she works at a place called Darkstone Manor. Needless to say, Lily forges her references, fakes a terrible Irish accent and manages to secure a position working The Worst Woman In The Universe at Gothicarama Hall. On arriving at Murderdeath Grange, in the dark and the pouring rain, the first thing she witnesses is the master of the house, who emerges drunkenly from a room, with his shirt undone, and shoots a chandelier in paroxysm of overwhelming manpain. This is Devon Darkwell (yes, this is actually his name) and it is the best thing he does in the whole book.
And this is like page 50. From there, Lily reels from misfortune to misfortune, mostly at the hands of Dark McDark of Darkness Hall, who was married to a Bad Woman who did Bad Things to him, and consequently acts like he has a cosmic mandate to be a total prick. To some degree this was interesting because Lily is working as a servant and he treats her like a servant and basically has no interest in her life or the well-being of other servants under his employ. It takes a very, very long time for him to consider her as any sort of real person at all. And I felt was kind of grittily realistic, except I was frustrated because it didn’t feel like the book offered much challenge to Devon’s sense of his own unquestionable right to Lily: as a master over a subordinate, a social better over a social inferior, and as a man over a woman.
Partly, I think, this is because the book is so packed with melodramatic incident (fires! interrupted weddings! smugglers! wreckers!) that there’s very little room for emotional growth or change. Essentially Devon never really responds to Lily herself so much as the terrible, awful, dreadful things that constantly happen to her. As for Lily, she reminded me of de Sade’s Justine more anything: she is person who suffers and is not, really, affected by that suffering. She just sort of continues to endure it. Obviously there’s no question that she’s an incredibly resilient person (and I liked her a hell of a lot more than Dark McDark) but her role is incredibly—though also perhaps necessarily—passive. She flees, she suffers, she flees, she suffers ad infinitum. It doesn’t help that her virtue (in the broad sense, not just virginity sense) is presented as actively contrary to her well-being. And, obviously, that’s probably a deliberate comment on the role of women in an oppressive society but from a purely reader-perspective it gets very wearying as Lily will never ever do anything to help or protect herself.
I’ve seen Lily compared to Jane Eyre here and there, and it certainly has Jane Eyre-ish aspects, especially when it came to atmosphere and the relationship between a socially-powerful gentleman and the woman with nothing at all. And both Jane and Lily, at one, point run out onto a moor and nearly die. But a significant point of difference for me was that Jane is Rochester’s moral and spiritual superior and this is something he himself is very aware of, so actually the power balance between them shifts in Jane’s favour very quickly. And Jane’s virtue, her goodness, and her strength are never bad for her. They get her out of trouble (for example when Rochester tries to seduce her into being his mistress after the truth of his marriage comes out) not into it. For Lily it’s the exact opposite.
For example, there’s a bit, where Dark deflowers her (with her non-enthusiastic semi-consent) by making her believe he actually likes her. But, no, he is just being a Romance Hero and immediately afterwards hands her quite a lot of money and dismisses her. Now, instead of taking the money and getting the hell outta dodge like any sensible person, she instead sticks around, working as a drudge at Doomngloom Towers and doing some extra suffering. And I understand she felt she gave herself to him in good faith and if she takes his money she’ll be a whore … but, for God’s sake, at that point the only reason to stick around, cleaning for a pittance the fireplaces of a man who treated you with such absolute contempt is because you know you’re a romance heroine and he’s going to be very sorry and marry you later.
I’m not sure whether I’d recommend Lily or not. It’s definitely a rollercoaster and the chandelier shooting is A+. For me, I found it most interesting as the precursor to To Have & To Hold, which is a book I find troubling and fascinating and return to time and time again. They have many themes and elements and even scenes in common (for example, they both contain a sequence in which the hero attempts to force the heroine’s body to respond passionately to him, and is utterly defeated), and at their heart they both concern a man without goodness and a woman without power. But, unlike THATH, I don’t think Lily quite manages to get to grips with one of its central conceits: how does a man who has no reason to care about anyone or anything—who lives in a world that actively rewards him for not doing so—change.
An Unseen Attraction by KJ Charles
I was saving this for when I needed a pick up – and, surely, it delivered. I mean there’s no way I can talk sensibly about any book by KJ Charles and I need to issue a thousand and eighty-seven disclaimers because not only do we share an agent but I independently think she’s the bees knees. Anyway, this is a really intriguing start to a new series. It’s a warm cup of a tea of a book, and I loved the dynamic between the Clem and Rowley. It’s very tender, respectful and gentle: essentially what we have here is a love story between two people who genuinely really like each other, which is weirdly rare in romance, and is especially effective here because it contrasts wonderfully against the gothic mystery plot that I assume is going to develop over the next two books. I cannot wait.
The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun
Wow, this book was completely fascinating. It made me laugh and moved me greatly, and I feel awkwardly ignorant to have not been aware of it before now, especially because Isherwood is kind of who we talk about when it comes to accounts of Weimar Berlin. Anyway, as far as I understand it, The Artificial Silk Girl was originally published in Germany in 1933, and then banned by the Nazis. And is now available in a very modern-sounding translation that seems to fit the subject matter—which is a kind of peculiar blend of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Berlin Stories—perfectly.
The book takes the form of a diary, almost a stream of consciousness really, written by the main character, a young woman called Doris who, having been fired from her job and stolen a fur coat, flees to Berlin in search of love and stardom.
Doris herself is delightful: silly and naive and charming and vulnerable and simultaneously self-deluding and self-aware. There’s something oddly subversive in spending time with a heroine who is allowed such liberty to be promiscuous, shallow and apolitical, especially given when and where the book is set. I honestly ended up adoring her, largely because she seems so unconcerned with being likeable. At least in her diary. The rest of the time she very, very conscious of status as sexual commodity and very comfortable with using the power it gives her. There’s very refreshing about her sexual frankness—the way she treats it as both transaction and as pleasure, and is equally unashamed of both.
Tilli says: “Men are nothing but sensual and they only want one thing.” But I say: “Tilli, sometimes women too are sensual and want only one thing.” And there’s no difference. Because sometimes I only want to wake up with someone in the morning, all messed up from kissing and half dead and without any energy to think, but wonderfully tires and rested at the same time. But you don’t have to give a hoot otherwise. And there’s nothing wrong with it, because both have the same feeling and want the same thing from the other.
It seems unlikely, at least on the surface, that Doris could be seen as any sort of feminist heroine (she hates, for example, the idea of working for a living and is at her happiest when keeping house for a man) but, while I definitely not claiming to be any authority on identifying feminist heroines, I felt very keenly how she was caught between the values of the 19th and 20th centuries – wanting above all, I think freedom to choose, even if what she chooses is a commitment to ultimately quite 19th century ideas about the roles of men and women. The important thing for Doris, I think, is not whether it’s right or wrong to work for your living or spend your life taking care of a man but the capacity to live for your own happiness, and to be able to seek it without judgement, rejection or restriction. This is what Doris’s journey really comes down to: she ends the book with a much better understanding of herself and what she wants, though it’s bittersweet at the same time because growing up is simultaneously victory and defeat. And, also, WWII is about to kick off so … yeah … that’s a thing.
One of the highlights of the book for me is a section in the middle where Doris has a love affair of sorts with a blind, married veteran of the previous war. She describes Berlin to him for about ten Joycean pages and I was absolutely entranced:
I see myself — mirrored in windows and when I do, I like the way I look and then I look at men that look back at me — and black coats and dark blue and a lot of disdain in their faces — that’s so important — and I see — there’s the Memorial Church with turrets that look like oyster shells — I know how to eat oysters, very elegant — the sky is a pink gold when it’s foggy out — it’s pushing me toward it — but you can’t get near it because of the cars — and in the middle of all this, there’s a red carpet, because there was one of those dumb weddings this afternoon — the Gloria Palast is shimmering — it’s a castle, a castle — but really it’s a movie theater and a café and Berlin W — the church is surrounded by black iron chains — and across the street from it is the Romanisches Café with long-haired men! And one night, I passed an evening there with the intellectual elite, which means ‘selection,’ as every educated individuality knows from doing crossword puzzles. And we all form a circle. But really the Romanisches Café is unacceptable. And they all say: ‘My God, that dive with those degenerate literary types. We should stop going there.’ And then they all go there after all.
Anyway: highly engaging, highly recommended. And, in case it isn’t obvious, I am very in love with Doris. I would buy her all the fur coats she wants.
Bitter Waters by Chaz Brenchley
I’m not very good at reading short story collections because a good short-story is such a perfectly enclosed little, err, thing that it feels like a massive emotional effort to move onto the next. Bitter Waters, however, is sufficiently theme-y and well-organised (despite encompassing several time periods and genres) that I managed to move relatively easily through the book. It also helped that while some of the stories were more gripping to me than others, there wasn’t one I didn’t respond to. And the writing, God, the writing is stunning, moving with effortless control from cheesy gothic to melancholy ghost story to darker contemporary tales.
Unfortunately my incapability with regards to short stories extends to writing about them so I’m floundering a bit here. I would say the collection is breaks roughly into three parts: the first grouping of stories concerns of mentorship: relationships between older and younger men, sometimes with romantic elements. The second grouping of stories concerns illness and death. The third centre on Sailor Martin, an immortal adventurer, who moves between both historical, fantastical and modern settings, uniting the themes of the previous two mini-collections—for example, ‘Keep the Aspidochelone Floating’ concerns his relationship with a young boy. And, of course, all the stories are connected by the bitter, uh, fluids of the title: seawater and blood and tears and … y’know … semen. Because gay male desire is also a recurring theme, and woven very naturally into the general tapestry of the stories, along with grief and love and occasionally horror.
As with any collection, there are some stories I liked less than others, and some I really loved. The opening story, I think, is the bleakest which could potentially be a little bit off-putting. I think my favourites included ‘In the Night Street Baths’ (a bit of unabashed high fantasy about the relationship between two eunuchs, one a younger boy, and the other an older man of restricted growth) ‘The Insolence of Candles Against The Night’s Dying’ (a man caring for his dying lover has to deal with is dead Uncle’s tragic past) and ‘Tis A Pity He’s Ashore’ because I’m a sucker for a terrible pun. But, favourites aside, I found the collection in its wholeness deeply satisfying. I loved the way the different stories fit together, sometimes illuminating and sometimes pulling against each other.
I’ve thought about this book a lot since I’ve read it. I anticipate returning to it a lot. Please don’t be put off by my rubbishness in writing about it: it’s haunting, fascinating, moving and beautifully written. I recommend it so hard.