Sunday, August 11, 2013

New blog... over there...

I have started a new blog HERE.

If you'd like to continue reading my posts please add the new address to your feeder/brain/doodad. I haven't yet worked out how to add all the blogs I read in a sidebar there, so if you know how I can I'd be grateful to you for telling me. Thank you.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Tampa is a novel that is shocking and provocative. The cover and the opening line make that clear, just in case the reader was in any doubt.

"I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep."

Twenty-six year old Celeste Price is extremely beautiful, married to a police officer called Ford who has plenty of family money to lavish on her, and is about to embark on her first teaching job. A job she has trained for simply to enable her to have access to the male students. Celeste is sexually insatiable, and her predilection is for fourteen year old boys. Fourteen because by fifteen they are already aging.

She is in a fevered state of arousal at school. She masturbates alone in her classroom. From the outside she appears to be in control of her students and ostensibly teaches them English, but all the while she is selecting an appropriate victim. He has to have disengaged parents, be quiet enough not to boast about having sex with his hot teacher, and look appropriately young. She picks Jack Patrick.

Nutting's writing is crisp and clear. She has a good eye for detail, describing one woman as having a "caffeinated ponytail, which was perched in the top center of her skull like a plume on the hat of a Napoleonic infantryman." but the many graphic sex scenes are written in a blankly detailed way. When Celeste is not having sex with Jack she is fantasising about him and masturbating, or maybe enduring sex with Ford. I won't spoiler any plot developments, but we read many of these unemotional and ultimately rather dull scenes. 

The characters don't have depth - we don't ever learn much about Jack or Ford - we see them only through Celeste's eyes. Celeste is a vain woman with a one track mind. Nutting does not make her in any way a sympathetic character, but she is darkly humourous. A fellow teacher, Janet, serves as her counterpoint. Where Celeste is young and attractive, Janet is jaded and unattractive. The staff don't like her, the kids don't like her. Celeste attracts colleagues and students alike with her beauty and is able to continue her predatory behaviour, whilst Janet repels them.

This is Nutting's point, I think. She wants us to look at how society treats beautiful women differently to plainer ones, and female paedophiles differently to male paedophiles. The title Tampa refers us to the Debra LaFave case, where LaFave, a stunning 26 year old teacher, pleaded guilty to "Lewd or Lascivious Battery" after having sex several times with a fourteen year old student. Her lawyer argued that she was too attractive to go to prison. On seeing pictures of her, many thought the boy had been lucky. (Nutting went to the same school as LaFave.) I've been googling, and sadly LaFave is far from alone. Sex with a child is a terrible criminal act, no matter who commits it. Consent from a child is no consent at all. 

Society is often dazzled by shiny, pretty youth. This novel boldly shines a light on some big, messy contradictions. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A short fiction of mine up at Cease, Cows

Cease, Cows looks to be a pretty nifty new journal. My ace writing pal, Tania Hershman, encouraged me to send a piece their way, and they published Cara last week. They've done a wonderful job finding an accompanying image. It's a bit different to my usual fiction, maybe even a little sci-fi-esque.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

A new Sittenfeld novel is always a treat, and Sisterland is a beautifully absorbing read. It's one of those books that you can't wait to get back to when you have to put it down, and then feel bereft when it's finished. In fact, I haven't yet been able to get on with the next book in my tbr pile, it's too soon.

Kate wants a quiet, normal life. She's a stay at home mum to Owen and Rosie, is happily married to Jeremy, and spends her days on playdates with friend and neighbour, Hank, and his daughter. Hank is married to Courtney, a professor of geophysics, who works with Jeremy. The two couples socialise together, pop in and out of each others houses, and have a good relationship. When Vi, Kate's identical twin sister, appears on TV predicting a catastrophic earthquake, it's Courtney who appears opposite her, ridiculing her claim and offering a coolly scientific point of view. Fissures appear in all of their lives.

Where Kate is anxious, controlling and rigid, Vi is expansive, spontaneous and impulsive. Sittenfeld manages to make the reader empathise with both of them. Vi looks like she's having more fun maybe, but I identified with the mummy angsting of Kate. Both twins have always had "senses" although having been ostracised in high school because if her ability to tell the future, Kate has long since attempted to ignore any feelings she has. She's furious with Vi for the publicity which surrounds her announcement, and fears that she will be identified as Vi's twin, and therefore be seen as creepy and different, once again. Loathe as she is to play any part in the prediction a date suddenly fixes itself in her mind, and she feels she has to tell Vi.

Sittenfeld is a classy writer and a great observer of people. The psychic parts are underplayed and seem nothing much more than the general feelings we all get from time to time - this is no schlocky paranormal story. Instead, we are treated to many telling details and conversations.

"Are you embarrassed to be married to me?" I'd thought I was making a joke, but aloud it didn't sound like one.

Sittenfeld expertly sweeps us back and forth in time, creating entire lives. We learn about the twin's parents, their depressed mother and apparently somewhat clueless dad, we learn about school, first boyfriends, friendships, jobs, partners. It's the same skillful layering that was employed so well in American Wife. And all the while tension builds as we approach the dreaded date of the predicted earthquake. It's another pageturner, and Sittenfeld has proven once again that she's one of the very best storytellers around.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

New flash up at The Ilanot Review

I like the Editor's note for The Ilanot Review's summer edition. They asked for submissions for a "hybrid" issue and wanted something different - work that "rejected labels." The journal is packed with good words from super smart writers like Elaine Chiew, Sarah Hilary, Jonathan Pinnock, Angela Readman and Nuala Ni Chonchuir. It's pretty damn cool to be appearing in a journal alongside them. I'm pleased with my piece, Immalore. At the risk of sounding like a twat, it's kinda personal, but ambiguous too, and probably the closest I get to poetry.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma - Kerry Hudson

One of my fave novels of 2012 was Kerry Hudson's stonking debut - Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It's a great read with characters that fizz off the page and sear themselves into the reader's mind. Opening with the words ""Get out you cunting, shitting, little fucking fucker!"" we immediately enter the world of Janie Ryan. Her story takes place against a backdrop of poverty, council flats and B&B's, benefits, booze, crappy food, strong women, and shitty men. Hudson's voice is refreshing, lively, and real, and although the subject matter is bleak her humour shines through. Yes, the sweariness and Scottishness may have reminded some reviewers of Irvine Welsh, but I reckon there's a fondness for, and a likeability to, the characters that make it closer to a Roddy Doyle novel.
The book has been critically acclaimed by far more important folk than I, and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Saltire Scottish First Book of the year, the Green Carnation prize and the Southbank Sky Arts Award. Pretty damn impressive! As of this week it's available in paperback and to celebrate Kerry has been doing a wee blog tour. She's been chatting to people about various things - her inspiration, favourite writing spots etcetera. I wondered if all the praise for her debut made writing her second novel super pressurised. 

That difficult second album. Second novel syndrome. How to train to be a taxidermist. I googled all of these in the final months of finishing up my second novel, Thirst. If you are writing your second novel right now DO NOT DO THIS. It is very unhelpful as there are swathes of articles who'll tell you about each and every author whose second novel got consigned to the bottom drawer. Forever.
The common reasons that these articles and blogs give for a second novel being difficult is: The first novel is autobiographic/semi-autobiographic and had been being 'written' for years before fingers ever hit the keyboard. That there is more pressure, people are waiting for the book, you have 'readers'. That if you're uncontracted (as I was) for that second book then the pressure is double because that might be it, game over, The End. I recognise all of these symptoms and I know I'm not alone, the writers I've spoken to about this gave their own stories of procrastination, despair, manic optimism over an idea only to realise it is pure panic-driven madness. 
But, I live to tell the tale (boom boom). So here's how I slayed the second-novel dragon:
I quit my job, gave up my flat, used every single penny I had and took myself off to Vietnam for four months. I don't recommend this first step unless you're feeling very brave and you know in advance that Hanoi is actually absolutely fucking freezing over the winter months but it did mean it was all or nothing in getting it finished.
I have always tried  pragmatic about writing; it's a job and there are jobs that are tougher, much tougher. Writing is a joy, having the freedom to write what we choose is a privilege many don't have. Whenever I felt myself slipping into angst because a scene wasn't working and thus becoming a little too fond of my South East Asian hot toddy (made with lime and Vietnamese whisky) I'd remember how lucky I was and Just Bloody Get On With It.
I was methodical. I had a schedule of when all of the editorial drafts needed to be completed; structural, a scene by scene rework (10 pages a day), another draft for the development of each of the main characters and a read aloud. Before I began reworking anything, I reread it and wrote down what was happening on the page and what I wanted to happen. I didn't always stick to the schedule and the notes didn't always help but at least I knew how far behind I actually was when I was slipping.
I downloaded Scrivener. Scrivener, you little beauty! My second book has two protagonists and three separate timelines. A huge, and very technical, departure from Tony Hogan. Scriveners functionality saved me from rocking in a corner while chewing on my own hair.
I stopped thinking about the Other Stuff. Other stuff is: the response to your first book, comparisons to the first book, fears of only having one book in you, terror that your publisher is buying other new books that might be like yours, other writers already publishing their second books, the voice in your head that is always ready to tear a strip off you. Instead, I just thought about the story, how vulnerable my characters were and how I wanted to do them justice.
So that's it really: Arse to seat, organise, get Scrivener, get out of your own head and into the story. Sounds easy. It bloody well isn't but it is worth it; as my debut comes out in paperback I know next July Thirst, my second novel, will be on shelves next to it. And I'm no longer Googling scary articles about the trouble with second novels so can spend more time looking at pictures of pissed off animals in fancy dress on Buzzfeed.
Ah, I'm so glad Kerry has managed to write her way through any worry and really look forward to reading Thirst when it comes out. For now though she's organised a competition to win a signed copy of Tony Hogan...
'Want to win a signed copy of Tony Hogan? I'm trying to put together a Tony Hogan soundtrack. Simply submit your song suggestion to me @kerryswindow on Twitter with the hashtag #tonyhogantune by the end of Tuesday 9th of July. If your song is one of the ten selected for the soundtrack (and you were the first to suggest it!) I'll send you a signed copy of Tony Hogan.' 
You'd best get cracking eh? You can find out more about Kerry at her website, and follow her on twitter @KerrysWindow.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Humans by Matt Haig

Maths professor Andrew Martin has been "taken by the hosts" and replaced by an alien who takes his form. The Vonnodorian's are a race who believe Martin's solving of the Riemann hypothesis will lead to human space travel, and so the solution must be destroyed, along with anyone else Martin divulged the details to.

Haig sets out his stall in the preface. Through these alien eyes he will reveal to us what it is to be human. His alien will report to his fellow Vonnodorian's about us. He will gently poke fun at the ridiculous things we humans do, but he will also illuminate the essence of who we are. In pretending to be human, Andrew Martin, or rather, the alien Andrew Martin, will discover that no matter how evolved and superior his own race, nothing compares to human love.

In snappy little chapters the alien relates the story, which ostensibly is about him tracking down people who may know of Martin's Riemann hypothesis breakthrough, but of course is merely a vehicle for Haig's observations. He's a thoughtful and skilled writer, what could be trite bite sized homilies are actually resonant and wonderful pieces of wisdom.

I don't want to spoiler things with any further plot development, but I do want to share two brilliant quotes, so as to entice you to buy this for yourself.

Firstly funny/true, "I realized that if getting drunk was how people forgot they were mortal, then hangovers were how they remembered."

And then profound, "Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don't kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars."

Those nine sentences may just be the most beautiful and important words I've read.


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