Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There are some books that as soon as you have turned the page on the final full-stop, you know that you will never forget them. These are the books that will always occupy a corner of your mind, their characters and scenes waiting to pounce on you at a moment’s notice. “Was that character okay in the end? How did this other character feel just then?” You may ask yourself on the train home one night. This is one of those books.


The book follows the various destinies and desires of a group of interconnected people in Nigeria and later Biafra throughout the 60’s and the war which descends upon them all: Ugwu, a houseboy who leaves his village to work for the charismatic intellectual Odenigbo in the university town of Nsukka; Olanna, a privileged young woman who gives it all up in favour of living with Odenigbo and becoming a teacher; and Richard, an Englishman abroad who falls madly and irrevocably in love with both Igbo culture and Kainene – Olanna’s twin sister.

Before picking up this book I knew nothing about the Nigerian-Biafran war. Nothing. Nada. Zip. It simply isn’t a subject which is covered in most curricula. As far as I can see there are three reasons for this:

  1. The question of time. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school week to cover our own history properly, never mind anyone else’s.
  2. British schools have a real issue with teaching anything in living memory. If you’re lucky you might go up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and if you’re even luckier you might get to the collapse of the Soviet Union – but only those specific events. For instance, all I know about Ireland and the Troubles I know from my own research and from classes I took from an Irishman in France. I don’t think it often occurs to the Department of Education or exam boards that just because they remember it, it doesn’t mean we do.
  3. It doesn’t fit the narrative. European and American historians and media have built a very specific post-War narrative – which we have all been complicit in propagating, both in spreading it and in swallowing it without question. As far as most of us are concerned the post-War story is the Cold War, Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Woodstock and the Berlin Wall, – with a sprinkling of Civil Rights and Space Race chucked in for good measure. There’s no room in that narrow, clean, linear narrative for the expansive messiness of Algeria, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Biafra; because God forbid that more than one thing happened at a time.

The only thing worse than mangling history, is ignoring it. Anyway, the result of this madness is that I had no pre-knowledge, no preconceptions going in and you know what? I could have picked far worse places to start.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love me a non-linear timeline and this book has that a plenty. The time-hopping is used sparingly and  for dramatic effect, rather than as a nifty bit of post-modern illusionism – which is refreshing for a piece of “literary” fiction. (The inverted commas will be explained in an article one day…) As a result of the disjointed timeline the contrast between before and after the outbreak of war becomes painfully pronounced,  as well as giving you more space to focus on the characters and their personal conflicts, – but without going full Brecht and giving the entire plot away. This is reflective of an entire style which not only puts the story first, but is immensely readable.

Speaking of the characters, I love them. Well, most of them. Of the “main cast,” so to speak, I never really warmed to Odenigbo. Perhaps I have known too many people like him, to truly love him, – student-like idealists who think they can change the world by quoting critics and concepts. All the same, I admire him as a character for being generally progressive and well-intentioned, mainly because of Ugwu, and his faith in the Biafran dream shattering is one of the more quietly heart-breaking things in the book. Olanna and Kainene are beautifully-realised three-dimensional women (you’d be amazed how rare that is). Olanna is a sympathetic point of view character, and whilst her outlook on life is affected by her socioeconomic status that isn’t who she is. It would have been so easy to have her as a rich bitch and keep it at that. Like Odenigbo we never actually have a chapter written from Kainene’s point of view, instead the reader has to rely on the perspective of her sister and her lover to build a picture of her character – Richard’s fascination and Olanna’s regret. As a result she comes across as cynical, intoxicating and sometimes vulnerable. And I love it. She has a character type which we often see in men in fiction, but rarely women – that combination of hardened, enigmatic worldliness and likeability that makes Messrs Darcy and Rochester intriguing romantic heroes. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see more of her.

Although, as much as I love Kainene my heart belongs to Ugwu and Richard – my two favourite POV characters. Whilst Adichie makes it clear that Ugwu isn’t really on the same level of education as the other main characters, she also makes it clear that he is still an intellectual and emotional being in his own right, capable of surprising even the reader. (He will, wait until the end). You’ll just have to read the book to discover what a likeable and amazing character Ugwu is, but rest assured – he is both. Richard is, I fully recognise, a far more problematic proposition. He is the only truly sympathetic white character in the book, and whilst his love of Biafra and Kainene are sincere, it’s difficult to say how much of his view is tinged with romanticism as an outsider. The other characters view him as a combination of mildly ridiculous and sweet as a direct result, the quintessential Englishman abroad; whereas he sees himself as just being emotionally and intellectually invested in his adopted country. The truth is somewhere in between.

This is where I should write a paragraph about the depiction of the war. About how masterfully Adichie depicts war from the points of view of those who suffered the most, what conclusions she comes to about foreign backing of Nigeria and the apathetic world media; the debate over who has the right to tell this particular story. This is where I should write about the woman and the calabash. But I am not. I am going to hand it over to you, the reader. Buy it, borrow it from a friend or library – just read it, I implore you. You won’t regret it.


If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller By Italo Calvino, translated by William Weavers

This will be the most meta book that you have ever read, I can guarantee that right now….


You are the hero of this story. You have picked up a book that you’ve been meaning to read for a while, you get comfy and read the first chapter. Except this isn’t the book that you wanted to read. It’s a completely different book. What begins as a simple quest to find a good book will become a journey which will span countries, genres, philosophies and the very idea of fiction itself.

I do believe that this is the first book which I’ve reviewed that I have to thank my degree for introducing me to. It’s a very odd and out of left field choice – even for a module on European post-modern fiction – but I’m glad that the choice was made. Let’s start with the structure: The chapters alternate, one being a present tense ongoing plot starring “you” in quest of a good book, the other being the first chapter of a book that “you”‘ve found on your quest; each representing a different genre and style, –  thrillers, period pieces, westerns and so on. And every. Single. Time you’re just getting into the new story it breaks away to the next chapter about “you,” as “you” discover that there is no chapter two, or circumstances in the main narrative render reading it further an impossibility. This is a stroke of genius on the part of Calvino, as you are put into exactly the same state of enjoyable frustration as “you.” I would still love to get my hands on the rest of the western novel, even though I am fully aware that it doesn’t exist.

The characters in the story of “you” start as reasonable and realistic, and become increasingly anarchic as the narrative does. They operate on a kind of internal logic that Douglas Adams would have to co-operate with Franz Kafka to achieve, and yet makes a weird kind of sense in its own way. Even “you” are not immune, as “you” get pulled into the story and end up a very different “you” from the one who simply wished to sit down and read a book. It’s through these characters and the crazy journey that you go on that traditional notions of character function and ideas of what literature is for get questioned. Look out for the sister of the woman “you” fancy, she teaches literature at university level in spite of never reading any of the books, instead choosing to run them through a machine which tells her the most frequently occurring words – which she then bases her analysis on. Want to know the scary and hilarious thing there, children? I’ve read essays by genuine academics based on this approach.

If you like Welcome to Night Vale and your stories fast and tight, with a healthy does of surrealist irreverence then I highly recommend If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, as it is a very compelling, and very funny, novel which is tour de force of both writing a translation. The ending, for instance, is one of the most satisfying I’ve read in a long time. However, literary navel-gazing isn’t for everyone and I can understand why some of my class avoided writing about this thing like it was dirty laundry in the corner, but it would still make a very good gift for a literary-minded friend you dearly wish to frustrate.

The Passion of New Eve – Angela Carter

Oh Angela, it’s been a while…



I haven’t reviewed any Angela Carter for quite some time, and I haven’t reviewed any since I began to write half-decent, lengthier reviews. And now now it’s time for me to stop saying “review” and just do it. Evelyn is a man. More specifically, an Englishman moving to America just in time for the mother of all Civil Wars to break out; militant feminists, child religious crusaders,  oft-referred to but barely seen”blacks” and God knows who else fight, not only to survive, but to come out on top afterwards. In the midst of all this, Evelyn starts the road-trip of a lifetime that will see him go from a man in New York to a woman in California.

I love Angela Carter. I really do. That’s why The Passion of New Eve makes me sad. It’s mesmerizing and meaningful stuff in places, but in others it’s just stodgy and silly. It represents Angela Carter at the height of her thing for the trinity of myth, allegory and metaphor, before she would go to a more pared-back and streamlined approach in The Bloody Chamber. Take the scenes in which Evelyn is taken to the underground desert city of Beulah, and is has to take part in a ritual before being forcibly turned into a woman – with a view to making her pregnant with her own child, using the seed procured from him before the operations. (Don’t ask). In fact, forget just the ritual – let’s look at the whole Beulah section. It’s generally just silly. I get that it’s partly a satire on the feminist strand of the Mother Goddess cult – which was enjoying a resurgence at the time, – and partly uber-indoctrinated cyber-Amazons preparing for war; but the dialogue and the symbolism are very difficult to take seriously, the dialogue especially clunks a lot in this section – as they all appear to speak in concepts, not in sentences. As for the satire… It goes on too long and takes itself a little too seriously for that angle to really cut ice.

Dialogue generally is a major issue in this book, more than any other Carter novel it clunks like hell generally. Carter herself acknowledged that it wasn’t her strongest point, largely leaving dialogue out of The Bloody Chamber, and she did improve infinitely later on – Wise Children is a masterpiece in voices – and even when she did have the odd clunk in the future it would never be quite this bad. (If I say “the new century”, fans of Nights at the Circus will know precisely what I mean). As I said before, many of the characters – not just in Beulah, but apparently across America – speak in concepts and ideologies. This is a direct consequence of Carter being at the height of her allegorical phase, as Eve(lyn) travels through America she encounters characters that aren’t so much characters as representations of systems of thought and speechify accordingly. Zero the misogynist, impotent poet that insists his “wives” growl and bark instead of speak, anyone? In the tradition of road trip movies, some of these encounters do get a tad repetitive.

However, there are things in this book which are incredibly well done. I love the first act in New York, and how the scene is built up and set there – there are some beautiful moments of characterisation as well as description, as Evelyn’s less than healthy relationship with Leilah – a dancer – is established and explored in a subtle and sensible manner; he isn’t the Big Bad Wolf, he’s just a man programmed to think and react in a certain way. Also, I really do like Leilah as a character – she’s a charismatic cocktail of innocence and experience that leaves a very big impression on the reader from first to last. I’m also very fond of the cinema motif, and the running references to old Hollywood and the actress “Tristessa” which just underline the themes of illusion and gender-perception; and there is a marvellous set-piece which goes from echoing Sunset Blvd to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. And I don’t think all the road-trip stuff is always too repetitive, the child crusaders make for a nice rhythm-breaker, with the leader being a strangely uncanny foreshadowing of George. W. Bush…

The Passion of New Eve is Gulliver’s Travels on LSD. In America. Yeah, in places it’s silly and it probably needed a re-draft or two, but it’s still worth the read – it’s probably one of the best descriptions of New York that I’ve ever read. Because when it’s good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’s absolutely awful I’m going to give this one a 2.5/3 out of 5 – maybe I’m too young to get some of the references, but sometimes it just falls flat. And good books shouldn’t have a sell-by date.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

… Or “Why I don’t envy Baz Lurhmann.”

Gatsby_1925_jacketYes, this is a shameless cash-in on the up-coming (admittedly, awesome-looking) Baz Lurhmann film but hey, nothing that brings a new audience to this great story can be all that bad. Touch wood.

I’ll admit my immediate reaction when I heard that Baz Lurhmann was to direct the first big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby since the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version was something along the lines of: “Arrgh! But, but, he was responsible for Moulin Rouge! Why would you do that?!” For the record, I have more than reconciled myself with the choice of director (he did have a career before Moulin Rouge, and damn… Those ads look amazing). The other main problem, not just for me but for everyone who loves this book, is that pretty much everyone has their own version of The Great Gatsby in their heads; everyone knows how they’d do such-and-such a scene and with who. The inner frustrated director in most readers will be prepared to hate any adaptation done by someone else who dared to get in there before they did, (because they totally were going to make that film). So what is it about this book which inspires both such cultish blind devotion to it and outright hostility towards anyone who might wish to touch it?

Our narrator and reader-substitute in this story is Nick Carraway; a relatively blank-slate from old money in the Mid-West come to make his fortune on the stock-market in New York. With a view to saving cash, he moves to the small peninsula of West Egg – the less-legitimate of the two “Eggs” in the book – and soon  realises that his next-door neighbour is rather less then ordinary. He doesn’t only realise this through the fabulously decadent and meretricious parties which Jay Gatsby throws every week, despite not engaging in them at all himself. He mainly realises it when he seems him staring across the bay at East Egg, more specifically at the green light at the end of the jetty belonging to Nick’s married cousin, Daisy. Beyond that, there is very little I can say that won’t give away anything to do with the plot, aside from that the emerging tale is one of thwarted hopes and dreams, class, money, love and one of the last true idealists of fiction standing against the world.

I love the characters in this book. Not from a point of view of affection, as such – they’re mostly fairly abhorrent characters in their own ways – but more from a technical standpoint. Every character, no matter how walk on their role may be, is given due time and attention and are developed verbally, visually and as a function of the story. You could probably write a thesis on the supporting characters in The Great Gatsby and still get a first. As far as the main quintet is done (Gatsby, Nick, Jordan, Daisy and her husband, Tom) none of them are two-dimensional which could have so easily happened with both Tom and Gatsby, with the first as a philandering villain and the second as a knight in shining limo;all of them have a degree of ambiguity, even Nick whose reliability as a narrator is something which we’re occasionally called upon to question. Although as much as I love Nick* (and yes, I do – I think he’s sweet) and the character development he gets somewhat unusually for a theoretically tabula rasa device, it’s Gatsby who is the key to this book.

Let’s face it, like with Villette, the affection the reader has for this book is usually in direct correlation with that they have for the main character. Jay Gatsby is essentially Don Quixote in spats, and yet there is always this feel of the con-man conjurer about him; he’s too fantastic to be true, his lies are too obvious and badly-made. But for all that he is pure idealism and with surprising sense of innocence and vulnerability behind it; he feels like one of the few characters in fiction who acts like he belongs in the fictional world, a more fictional world than the one which he inhabits. It almost feels as though he has gone through fairy tales and literature and Onegin-like has underlined and made annotations on desirable character-traits and tried to assimilate them into his own personality. Compared to some of the other characters, he comes across as an otherworldly innocent, but it’s heavily hinted that the source of his wealth is illegal and that he’s done some less than chivalric things in his life to reach his current  position. See, this is how good the characterisation is: Fitzgerald has me writing about Gatsby like he’s a real person. Gah! 

The story’s well-written and concise, alternating between the witty and satirical, and the bittersweet and lyrical in the prose. I would say that chapter one can be a bit hard-going if you’re less than at your focused best, but stick with it – once Fitzgerald gets into his stride he rewards your loyalty by the champagne-bucketful. It is a novella and the chapters are knitted together very tightly, so I would recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible and paying it full attention – it’s not exactly something that you can just dip in and out of. As for your concentration, almost literally everything is relevant either to plot or theme in some way as well as there being a couple of blink and you’ll miss it, and at least one character death you’d miss if you were semi-skimming the book.

So, that’s The Great Gatsby – read it or regret it. The world which Fitzgerald conjures is so vivid, both palpable and dreamlike at the same time, that it’s little wonder that people who love it get so truly possessive and attached to “their” Gatsby. So Baz, good luck mate – better you than me.

*For the record, I completely ship Nick and Gatsby. Go Natsby!

Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson

Virginia Woolf – eat your heart out!


This would make the most magnificent, yet fiendishly difficult to adapt, film.

Our protagonist/chronicler is Ruby Lennox, whom we follow from her reluctant conception right up until the present day; alongside of this is her attempt to map out the history of her family from the 1880’s onwards and bring all those loose and unresolved narratives and dark secrets together into one coherent strand.

This book is a great advert for the modern novel and a marvellous rebuff to all those who say that books are redundant in the age of cinema; even though I’ve said that Behind the Scenes at the Museum would be a great film, it would never quite manage to capture the crazy chronology and selective narrative omniscience of the original (there’s more than a few narrative twists). I do like the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey* structure of this epic of the mundane, as it makes an otherwise rather unremarkable story of family life set alongside Great British Events of the 20th Century (the Queen’s coronation, the World Cup, The Beatles etc.) far more interesting and lends it an air of a real exhibition at the eponymous museum that the reader, or visitor, has accidentally viewed the exhibits in almost – but not quite – the right order.

The characters are also extremely well-realised and skip nicely over the border of likeability and back again (or not as the case may be) and shows each of their individual evolution not as some grandiose X-Factor style journey, but just as the natural and occasionally regrettable changes that a person’s character can undergo in the course of their lives.

I give this book 4 out of 5, on the grounds that no matter how much I like the chronology, characters et al the ending (and about thirty years) is wrapped up with lightening speed with at least one stupidly convenient contrivance concerning a nurse. Still, it’s a great way to pass a couple of afternoons.


*”People tend to think of time as a strict progression of cause to effect, but from a non-linear,non-subjective viewpoint  – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… Stuff.” Blink, Doctor Who.



Villette – Charlotte Brontë

Not as universally well-known as Jane Eyre, but just as good in its own way.

Despite being a hit and a half upon its release in 1853, it has now become a relatively obscure novel with a cult-following amongst Brontëites and Victorianists. Which is a shame, because it does things that nobody writing in English had really done before in quite such a searing and unapologetic manner.

Lucy Snowe is in her twenties, plain, studious and on her own. She has spent the last few years as the paid companion of a wealthy, bed-bound old lady – but now the latter is dead and Lucy must find her own path in the world. Despite not knowing a word of French, she decides to go to the capital of Labassecour (a fictionalized Belgium), Villette (Brussels) as so many English people have to live inexpensively and start anew with no history. More by accident than design she ends up at Mme Beck’s Pensionnat de Desmoiselles, where she begins as the nurse to Mme Beck’s children and ends up as the English teacher. This is where the action really begins. Cue a bitterweet story of appearances and deceptions, surveillance, prejudice, religious doctrine, love, despair and disillusion.

How much you like this book really depends upon how much you like the protagonist. If you find Lucy Snowe annoying, because you dislike her cynical, sardonic, sensitive and sometimes lyrical voice, you’re screwed – it’s not only first person, but unashamedly subjective. Lucy has such a distinctive narrative voice and interior monologue, the contrast between that acerbic dry wit and the generally dismissive perceptions of her by the other characters as a plain and unremarkable thing leads the reader to feel outraged on her behalf;  it also has the effect of underlining the difference between appearance and reality which is a key theme throughout. It’s a book of double-identities, symmetry, oxymorons, contrasts and pseudonyms; ironically enough for the last, Brontë had long since been outed as an author – and yet Villette was still published under her own pseudonym, “Currer Bell.”

The actual story itself is very well structured and uses the three volume format to its advantage, closely echoing the three acts of a play in terms of plot arc and emphasis. One could hardly accuse it of lacking in incident either; there isn’t really a section which you skip over when you read it again because sweet F.A. happens for ages, which (let’s be honest) does happen quite a lot with Victorian fiction. The characters and the settings are brutally realistic (in the psychological – not the kitchen sink sense), any and all bits supernatural ephemera only exist to be unpicked and smashed to pieces almost immediately; so no bizarre instances of telepathy jammed in there and left hanging.

Villette is a bit like ox-heart. It doesn’t necessarily sound like the most appetizing of ingredients, and it’s a bit tough in places – but treated properly it can be simply delicious. 5 out of 5, over and out!

Brixton Beach – Roma Tearne

Self-conscious to the point of awkward.

We follow the trials and tribulations of Alice Fonsenka and her family through political upheaval and personal tragedies in 1950’s Sri Lanka , to cold London and a struggle to find self-expression and retain cultural identity that takes us up to 7th July 2005. It’s a classic example of the current batch of post-colonial  fiction.

It was interesting to approach this from the angle of  an inhabitant of an island that rarely teaches its own history properly, never mind anyone else’s; it’s a dilemma which all writers of post-colonial fiction will face eventually – the audience’s lack of shared history. Funnily enough, the sections of the story which directly deal with the roots of civil war and the realities of the nascent  Tamil – Singhalese conflict are probably the most successful. These are the bits that ring true emotionally, whereas for the rest of the book Tearne remains largely divorced from her protagonists – as if rather apathetic to their fates, (Alice’s childhood and adult-life – most of the book – are almost non-events).  More importantly, these moments of injustice are handled casually – rather than with bombastic flourishes of righteous anger – as though Tearne is shrugging and saying: “So what? It’s not ideal, but it happens everyday”, which emphasises the cruel and casual nature of what is depicted.

The story hops uneasily between an impressionistic Sri Lanka which is portrayed as a sort of technicolour Eden with major issues left behind by the British and wet, cold and monochrome London (what British post-colonial novel is complete without a Grey Britain passage?) for the first two thirds – and suddenly creating a decidedly sunnier London for the final third in order to smash it apart during the pages which take place on 7th July 2005.

Meh… 2.5 out of 5. Some of it works quite well, the first chapter is really quite promising and some of the character-work on Alice’s mother is very well done; but the trouble is that it feels as though Tearne loses interest in the book and only decides to try to pick it up again in the final third, only to find that it is too little too late. A major problem this leads to is that Tearne doesn’t really attack anything from a new angle: Spices, colours, saris, heat, beaches, cold Britain, the struggle for integration, the inspirational teacher etc. are all very old ground now in post-colonial fiction and if you’re going to use them you need to be damned sure that you can carve a new path on old ground. I couldn’t help thinking that Brixton Beach didn’t do anything that Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things or Meera Syal’s Anita and Me didn’t do better first.

Over and out.

Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James


In a bizarre sort of way, it’s Twilight for the Adults Only section; more of which later, right now tradition dictates I give some sort of curiosity-rousing blurb:  Anastasia Steele  is not a happy bunny. Owing to flu, her best friend cannot interview Christian Grey – an enigmatic, domineering entrepreneur that’s self-made to the tune of a few billion dollars – for the university paper. Grey is not the kind of man who gives out interviews regularly, so the naturally gauche and clumsy Anastasia is sent to ask the questions instead; naturally, she thinks the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster and cannot wait to return to the relative obscurity of  her finals and her part-time job. But, who should turn up with an eye to getting to know our heroine better? Boris Johnson, (just kidding, just kidding – it’s the suspiciously handsome Grey). But it turns out there’s more to Grey than meets the eye, and he leads her down a path that will take her to places that she could never imagine.

Okay, so much for that. I think it’s no great secret by now that sadomasochistic sexuality makes up the body of the book; I would say “an exploration of”, but trust me – it really doesn’t go that deep. There’s a couple of OH-my-God-this-is-so-wrong-that-it’s-right moments of confusion, and that’s about it to be honest. The trouble is, for a book which features so much sex, it really isn’t sexy in the least – despite James’ infinite ingenuity about time, place, toys etc. it becomes depressingly routine and repetitive very quickly; in the words of Angela Carter it’s all “reduced to the cold white meat of the contract”, – which I wouldn’t have minded as a viewpoint, if the narrator wasn’t so desperately aiming for the erotic and failing. It doesn’t help that James very quickly creates her own linguistic clichés within the sex scenes, with repetition of Grey “finding his release”, “releasing his load” into Ana’s “sex.” This is a pet hate of mine. As a general rule, I think “sex” as a noun for female genitalia ought to be banned – as it is exceedingly precious and laughable; but I think when you’re writing a book that’s trying so hard to be revolutionary, S&M and reflects a philosophy of “fucking, not love-making”, it really, really doesn’t work. Writers, take note: Women have vaginas, cunts, man-traps – call them what you will, we have anything but “sexes”down there.

Now the people who are only interested in the sex have stopped reading, I can talk about the rest of the book. And it’s the characters, and a little bit of the setting that Twilight-fans past and present will feel a persistent twitching sense of déjà vu – because Christian Grey and Ana Steele are only slightly more grown-up versions of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. With issues on their issues. Don’t believe me? Ana and Bella are both clumsy, socially awkward, brunettes with a thing for jeans and trainers. Too circumstantial? Throw in the fact that both have a taste for “Classic British literature”, domineering men, are fancied by every man they meet (despite apparently being nothing special to look at), scrub up very well and have scatty mothers and emotionally-absent father figures and things begin to look a little suspect. Please add to this, that both Edward and Grey are control freaks with food issues, dark secrets, with stupidly rich, talented and good-looking adoptive families and suspiciously similar looks. Bear in mind that this is all set in and around the Seattle/Olympic peninsular area. It’s frankly a little insulting to realise that you are being thought of as twi-hard fodder, a way for publishers to make an extra buck out of those older teens that got an illicit thrill out of the off-page sex in the last Twilght book.

The plot works out well enough at first, not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman meets dangerously attractive man she can’t help but want to be with. Then they sleep together. And things get silly. One is under the impression that Grey is meant to be a complex, brooding, Byronic anti-hero, and that Ana is the Justine-like figure of sympathy and corruptible purity that might save him from himself; neither work out as either.  Grey ends up as a sort of tantrum-throwing Mills & Boon alpha-ape, and Ana as a rather irritating, irrational and whining figure that pipes up at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. There are a couple of tokenistic stabs at feminism, frankly James shouldn’t have bothered. The ending is left nice and open for the next book, but frankly I can predict what’s going to happen in the next two books just as easily as I could in this one. I’m not going to bother seeing if I’m right.

1 out of 5, the Marquis de Sade can rest easy in his grave as the unrivalled pornographer par excellence. You have to respect the level of research that went into this book, and the fact that someone took the time to write it, hence one point.

Over and out.

Coda: Doing a little back-up research online, it turns out that Fifty Shades of Grey began life as a Twilight fanfic. And now Fifty Shades fan-fiction has started popping up. Literature has officially started eating its own tail – Mad Book Disease will follow.

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

A.K.A. How I keep desperately trying to avoid saying The Taming of the Shrew.

I always find it faintly amusing how editions of this novella always look so harmless, so quaint – perhaps even slightly dull – with pictures of country houses, governesses and the odd garden vista. Hate to break it to you, but innocuous is one thing it ain’t.

The unnamed narrator is the youngest daughter of a country parson doing the classic thing that all respectable middle-class Victorian women in the need of a bit of cash do, – namely becoming a governess. After briefly meeting her (very attractive) employer in London, she is sent down to his country estate, Bly, to take charge of the running of the house and of the education of his niece and nephew. Miles and Flora are both very charming, charismatic  and intelligent children – to the point of being a little disturbing. Before long, things get a whole lot more so, as mystery upon mystery piles upon suggestion and implication to create a psychological minefield of a story.

Very little is definite in this novella. James was not kidding when he called it a jeu d’esprit, (contrary to popular belief this does not mean “spirited game”, but “mind game”) it really does screw with your head if you spend too long reflecting upon the plot and second-guessing it. The crux of the lack of stability, so far as reality is concerned, is that we are forced to view everything through the perceptions of our Governess – who is the very definition of an unreliable narrator and has the habit of jumping to very certain conclusions on minuscule amounts of evidence. Does the fact that there are ghosts (possibly) running about the place mean that the children’s eternal souls are in danger? Do the ghosts even exist at all, or are they the result of the repressed educator’s burgeoning sexual desires? James keeps us guessing right up until the very end, well – beyond, in fact. To this day, critics and readers align themselves in to “pro” and “anti” Governess parties, with the former regarding her as perfectly sane (if buttoned-up) human being caught up in ghost story – and the latter as a stark-raving lunatic with Freudian subconscious issues that ought to be kept as far away from children as humanly possible. 

The crux of the anti-Governess bias is, I suspect, more to do with the fact that the ghosts come across as far more interesting than she does. We hear from Mrs Grose (a dumpy housekeeper with some equally stodgy dialogue) that both Quint and Jessel (the ghosts) were beautiful, charismatic and utterly immoral in life; rather a contrast to the bland, moral and nameless narrator who can become quite tiresome company after a while. Thus, the temptation is to see the ghosts (and all subsequent inferences/suspicions around them) as the projections of the Governess’ subconscious desires.

But I don’t believe in any such Freudian rubbish. So far as I’m concerned, it’s a straight-forward ghost story – and to pin anything else on it is to fall into James’ trap of jeu d’esprit. Phewph. In other news, stylistically it’s generally pretty good and rarely predictable – although with a few epic fails on the style front, (Mrs Grose, definitely a case of function over form). Although I do warn you, you do need to be in the right mood to read it and, ideally, you should read it all in one go or in as few chunks as possible. The nature of the prose makes it a bit hard-going if you’re not feeling receptive, or the story is too fragmented.

I award this book 4 out of 5, with points deducted for a some prose and characterisation flaws – not just with the blessed Mrs Grose, Flora is eight in theory, and yet almost all of her actions etc would be more suited to a two year old. That might be an authorial decision – but I don’t think it works in terms of the story. Read and decide for yourself if the Governess is sane etc.

Over and out.

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

It’s brilliant because it’s bonkers.

Imagine it’s 1985. Now imagine that it’s a different 1985, where the Crimean War is still ongoing, Jane Eyre has an unhappy ending and the X Factor never happened. Oh, and criminal gangs are now moving into literature. (Bear with me, it makes total sense).  Enter Acheron Hades, super-villain extrodinaire who’s managed to kidnap Jane Eyre from the pages of her own novel, to hold her to ransom. It’s Thursday Next’s job to recover Jane, defeat the bad-guy, carry on with the day-job, move to Swindon, find a new car and stop the man she loves from marrying someone else. It’s just a couple of weeks in the life of Literary Detective, Thursday Next.

It’s a bit like Monty Python turned their brand of very British surrealism to the service of literature. It’s one of those books where if you get the references and love literature in general, you’ll be literally laughing all the way through. If you are anything less than crazy about reading, it might not be for you. You have to be a very specific type of nutter to find Baconians turning up on the doorstep like Jehovah’s witnesses funny. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not all nudging and in-jokes. There is a deadly serious undercurrent, courtesy of an absolutely brilliant villain; Acheron Hades is one of those rare villains who is just an evil, credible arch-nemesis, (even if he does have some fairly freaky powers). I don’t know about you, but I get fed up of baddies who have an excuse – you know the type. The ones who were traumatised by a peanut-butter accident when they were ten, or the like.

If you talk about the villain, you must also talk about the hero – even if they’re as reluctant as Thursday Next, (great name, by the way). I suppose you could call her a feminist protagonist in the best sense of the word. She’s not a hairy, angry man-hater, but just an ordinary(-ish) woman doing extraordinary things with a sense of humour, a pet Dodo and a multi-coloured Porsche. Whilst it would have been easy to make Thursday irritatingly wholesome and uncomplicated, Fforde stays his hand from any such nonsense. She has issues, she swears and she can be heart-broken without being paralysed a` la Mariana (hurrah!) Having said that, the award for understated heart-ache scene of the year goes to Fforde, for a poignant film noir pastiche in a hotel bar involving a piano. If you don’t feel heart-strings snapping, I worry for your soul.

It’s as bonkers as box full of frogs doing the can-can, intelligent as the Dictionary and takes you from one extreme to another faster than Jekyll to Hyde on fast-forward. I love it, you might not. 4.95 out of 5, on account of when Mr Rochester appears the style and semantics of his speech are ever so slightly wrong. Hey, what can I say? I’m a picky Jane Eyre fan? Over and out.