My Old Shit – June Edition

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

I’d also like to express my discontent that my copy of Lily does not have this cover.

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.

reading

24 Responses to My Old Shit – June Edition

  1. Annie Crow says:

    KJ Charles is why I am considering getting a kindle, after years of resisting e-books. I got “Wanted: A Gentleman” from the library (and then promptly bought my own copy) and want to read EVERYTHING. Alas, nothing else is in print. (And I can’t use my sons’ tablet because my oldest reads everything he can get his hands on, and, ahem, he’s not yet old enough for her. Or anything else I read.)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      KJ Charles would be an excellent reason to get a Kindle 🙂

      Um, she is available in hard copy though – her self-published books, at least, though print on demand paperbacks tend to be super expensive. I don’t know where in the world you’re based but here is the first Magpies book in hard copy on Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Magpie-Lord-Charm-Magpies-ebook/dp/B06XW9174G/ and here it is in on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Magpie-Lord-K-J-Charles/dp/1619221144/

      However, I am a massive ebook fan and would heartily recommend investing a reader to anyone who has the spare cash. And I say this as someone who resisted a Kindle for ages, being all “oh no, no, the poetry and majesty of books, I cannot, I must hold them in hands!” Obviously there is a tactility to hard copy that invests books with weight (figurative and literal) and memory but … and I mean this in a completely non-judgemental way … not every book is special. Sometimes they’re just disposable fun or impulses of the moment, like any other sort of entertainment. And actually it’s really handy not to have to worry about your storage and disposal of The Werewolf Who Kissed Me (sorry if this book actually exists, I just made it up), which kept you good company on a train but isn’t necessarily ever going to be something you pick up again.

      Also e-book readers are just … more comfortable to read than books. You can adjust the brightness, the size of the font, you never ever have to lose your place or a quote again. My eyesight is none-too-good and I actually find looking at a Kindle screen much more restful than reading a physical book. It’s noticeably different to reading either from a computer or a tablet as well: it’s just better.

      Also the kindle is so light you can carry it everywhere. You will ever ever have to try to Wolf Hall in your pocket or get caught without a book again.

      Um. I am paid neither by KJ Charles or Amazon Kindle.

      • Annie Crow says:

        Thanks for the links! I appreciate your taking the time to include them. I had seen that the Magpie books were available in print but with the exception of the first just WAY too expensive for me to warrant purchasing. I buy a lot of self-published books as it is but more than $20, yikes. (Another reason to give in and get a Kindle). My main reason for resisting e-books is that I spend far too much money on books as it is and that’s the ONLY thing that restrains me from buying still more books that I don’t have the time to read anyway. But yes, for KJ Charles – in particular the new series – I might give in.

        Also, will have to go out and read “The Artificial Silk Girl” now. I’ve lived in Germany and visited Berlin and Doris sounds like a wonderful person to spend time with.

        • Annie Crow says:

          Oh I feel very foolish, I didn’t look carefully enough at the prices on Amazon.uk. I now have books 2+3 of the Magpie series on route to me from overseas (and the first from here in the US). That should hold me for a while, given the length of my own TBR list. Thanks again for the info.

      • Elke says:

        Would like to second your take on the Kindle and throw in that book vs e-reader is a bit like streaming music and buy albums on vinyl. This way the term “keeper shelf” gets a new meaning as it is a physical shelf with only the most loved books. When I had to travel to Germany earlier this month, in all the rush, I forgot and ultimately lost my 5 year old paperwhite Kindle in the plane. I pondered whether to simply replace or upgrade it. In the end, I upgraded to the Voyage (without “special offers” – duh) and OMG, seriously, OMG this is such an ultra awesome device. It holds all my favorite books by… Alexis Hall and KJ Charles and Rose Lerner, Cat Sebastian and then some… and it is such a JOY to read with it. Lightweight and simply posh in my hand. Never would go back again. An upgrade worth the price.

  2. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Omg! <3 You’re seriously making me want to read Lily, if for no other reason than to think of the characters by names like The Worst Woman in the Universe, and places by names like Murderdeath Grange, as I’m reading In fact, it just struck me that what I’d probably rather do even more than actually *read* it, is to hear *you* read it aloud, substituting all the names. With attitude. Kinda like in this http://www.quicunquevult.com/books/spires/wftf-dvd-special-features#myjoke

    In lieu of that, if I read it I will probably hear those names, capitalized, and in your voice 😀

    Also I just now had to re-listen to that recording, because <3<3<3<3<3

    KJ Charles: All the yes, always!

    The Artificial Silk Girl sounds pretty amazing. That quote was beautiful, almost like stream-of-consciousness poetry 🙂

    Bitter Waters also sounds amazing. But I know exactly what you mean about short stories. They’re more concentrated, so you sort of . . . emotionally commit to each story as much as you do a whole novel. But they’re so short, so you want to move on to the next one right away, but you’re not ready. It’s like, if there are 10 short stories in a collection, you end up having 10 little book hangovers.

    I used to really enjoy reading short stories when I was in school, I think because we'd have one story as a homework assignment, then we’d thoroughly discuss it in class the next day. I think doing that sort of cleanses your palate so you're ready to read another one the next night.

    So it seems like you need a day between each story, and some way of processing it, by talking about it or writing about it. Maybe the solution is some sort of Very Serious Buddy Read 🙂

    I don’t think you wrote about it . . . rubbishly at all though. This, in particular "I loved the way the different stories fit together, sometimes illuminating and sometimes pulling against each other." is just, *beautiful*. You've made me want to read it <3

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you so much for reading 🙂 My experiments with short stories is that I should leave a definite gap between the individual stories, rather than treat it like a novel and just romp all the way through 🙂

  3. Jeanne says:

    “… essentially what we have here is a love story between two people who genuinely really like each other, which is weirdly rare in romance …” Thanks for this observation. I think it partially explains why I started reading m/m romance (KJ Charles society of gentlemen series was my first love in the genre) in the first place and why I read, re-read, listen, re-listen to Waiting for the Flood which may be my favorite romance ever.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh gosh, you’re too kind. I enjoy lots of romantic dynamics, but there is something really special and tender to me about “we just really like each other.” I think the downside of it is that it can sometimes feel a bit *too* lowkey, which is why I probably ended up exploring it in a novella rather than a full length novel. But it super works in An Unseen Attraction because of all the gothic happenings.

      • Jeanne says:

        Not kind, but old, impatient, and squeamish so I like novellas a lot. (I’ve bought all your books & all KJ Charles, but am still working my way through 1st Kate Kane & 1st steam punk and 2nd Magpie because Creepy.) I also find favorite authors through author recommendations (KJ Charles through Courtney Milan, Amy Jo Cousins through you) so appreciate review of what you read and liked. Have added Bitter Waters & Silk Girl to Nook wish list. Some of us fear Jeff Bezos and don’t buy Amazon.

  4. Adira August says:

    “…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. …”

    -I used to write about feminism years ago for a small newspaper at a time when that sort of thing was considered radical. Allowing a woman to write about it, I mean. This that I quoted that you quoted? That’s feminism.

    – It’s about choice. Choosing a classic “housewife” role is a feminist choice. As long as it is that, and not something foisted off on the woman. This heroine chose to define herself for herself – her sexuality, her lifetime desire. It’s a feminist statement.

    – I love that you like her.

  5. Darla Sharp says:

    Gah! I LOVE it when you blog about what you’ve been reading–Thank You!!!

  6. willaful says:

    I have that edition of Lily, nah nah nah, and it’s one of my greatest treasure. It’s the absolute perfect Crazytown Bananapants.

  7. Lennan Adams says:

    Finnnn <3 These all sound pretty amazing. Someone gave me The Roddy Piper Story for my bday which is probably dorkier that the NXT book. I might try the short stories–I haven't read any in forever and they sound really good. Thanks so much for writing these posts!!!

  8. Eli says:

    I’m super intrigued by the Chaz Brenchley book. I’m really into short stories and novellas right now (although I agree about the idea of a collection and the effort of moving from one story to the next) so these sound great. I started his Outremer series a while back and sort of fell off it, but now I’m wondering whether I should pick it back up…

    Thanks for the post. 🙂

  9. Sylvia Reads says:

    I always enjoy your reviews, thank you!

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