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inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (Default)
On request, here are some brief excerpts from a couple of Tom Sharpe books, namely the sex scenes (or almost-sex scenes). I think he writes this subject pretty well.

The first quote is from Ancestral Vices, because that's the better book.

In this, Walden Yapp is a university lecturer with strict socialist ethicial standards. Away from home, he finds himself lodging in the house of the well-endowed but married Mrs Rosie Coppettt, a lady of low intelligence. This causes him to fall into a rapid and severe moral crisis as he becomes infatuated with her.

Thanks to his Mother's high-minded neglect and his aunt's devotion to low-Church ethics, he regarded such affairs with Puritan contempt. )


The second extract is from The Gropes, a book that isn't Sharpe's best but has a rather touching sex scene in it. In this extract, Horace, an unpreposessing middle-aged man is on the run away from his wife with a suitcase of money which he has hidden from her. Up until this point, Horace's experiences have led him to believe that women aren't interested in sex apart from those few 'nymphomaniacs' one of whom he'd very much like to meet. In Barcelona in his hotel bar he encounters Elsie, a friendly middle-aged woman with her own story.

My old man was a bloody brute. Used to knock me about something horrible. My name's Elsie, by the way, and you are? )

By the way, it ends badly for both of these men, and exceedingly so. But not for Elsie, who gets one of the few happy endings I've ever read in a Sharpe novel.
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (Default)
The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar strongly reminded me of a Doctor Who script, in the best way possible. It's a hugely imaginative book set in an alternate reality Victorian London in which the royal family are all lizards and many of the characters are literary or historical figures. It could easily be a Who multi-parter from any of the series. There's lots of other Who nods as well - robots, whales, clockwork contraptions.

I've listened to a few Doctor Who radio plays and they didn't quite scratch the itch, but this definitely felt like a superior novelisation, albeit one without the Doctor himself. This was a nice surprise and I enjoyed my read.

The downside is that there were parts that were definitely unpolished, both in ways like unnecessary repeated word use, and also a general lack of pacing, tying up of plot points and character development. Also, heterosexual love interests aren't this writer's strong suit. The main character had a deal more chemistry with a random sailor he met on a boat than with his own girlfriend. The plot revolves around the main character's supposedly overwhelming love for his girlfriend, so this was a problem. Another issue was that the book is set in London but the writer doesn't seem to be fluent in British English, at least going by the jarring mistakes in some of the slang. The London scenes did lack a sense of authenticity. There are so many books that do London excellently, for instance Rivers of London, so this did stand out. Luckily the second half of the book takes place at sea and on a tropical island. Those scenes were much more vibrant and also pacier.

I'd definitely read the other books in this series (there are three of them) butt I'd hope they were a little more polished. This one still had unfulfilled potential. (7/10)

Ancestral Vices by Tom Sharpe is supposed to be one of his better ones and I'd agree. He's an intelligent writer and this book is a proper satire about the class system, the police, academia, the uncontrollable nature of lust and nearly anything else you can think of.

I didn't realise it at the time, but going by current Amazon reviews, I have a feeling that Sharpe's books became popular in a kind of Pub Landlord kind of way, in that most of the people who bought his books took his most satirical characters at 100% face value. For instance, there's a judge here who hates lesbians and feminists (as well as nearly everybody else) and has the most horrible things to say about them. "Oho!" say the reviews. "Sharpe's not very politically correct, not one for the feminists!"

I think Sharpe might actually be the second most feminist novelist I've ever read, after Charlotte Bronte. Fair play to him, that he managed to take money off both the anti-PC brigade at the same time as those on completely the opposite side of the spectrum. Alf Garnett from Death Do Us Part would be another example of this phenonemon, an angry gay-hating, xenophobic character who was supposed to be satire but became beloved by racists and homophobes. It's a long-running trait in British culture.

Anyway, Ancestral Vices is about a radically socialist university lecturer hired by a horrible old rich toff to write a book and dig up dirt on his family, so as to annoy his reams of relatives. Calamity ensues, involving mainly dwarves and dildos.

Surprisingly, there's a substantial section of the book which deals with persons of restricted growth, as the book also calls them. Less surprisingly, terrible things happen to them, because terrible things happen to everyone in a Sharpe novel. By the end of the book Sharpe does balance things nicely and have a wide variety of all kinds of characters, some good and bad, some with a tragic ending and some triumphant. It's a skill I've got to admire. Sharpe never picks on a minority without balancing it out in some way, even though his books never have happy endings.

This book would be even better if it had sharper pacing in the middle, where it slows a little. Also, some of the jokes fall flat because they're just too unbelieveable or reaching too hard for the lowest common denominator. But still it's got some amazing passages, and I can only admire the sharpness and sense of riotous freedom.

Here's a taster quote: "The Sergeant shook his head in disbelief. The notion that anyone could find anything remotely resembling carnal pleasure with an enormous turtle was even less appealing to think about than that fucking pig."

That's the first eight chapters kind of summed up, for better or worse. (8/10)

Currently reading: Sorceress of Darshiva by David Eddings. I'm enjoying the whole made-up fantasy history aspect of it, but I don't think the writer does women that well. His male characters are fun, though.
Also: The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. This is my third attempt at reading this novel and surprisingly, I'm enjoying it this time.
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (Default)
Tom Sharpe novels are full of terrible people doing terrible things. I loved his books as a kid. When you're repeatedly instructed that adults are wise people who should be respected and obeyed, there's nothing more subversive than discovering a funny book about adults misbehaving in the most shocking of ways. As an adult, I already know that people can be appalling. It's actually kind of depressing and I don't want to be reminded of it so much.

One of Sharpe's earliest books, Porterhouse Blue, is still a very good satire about the British university system. Unfortunately, The Gropes is not a satire. It's barely even funny, and the characters are drawn too far from life to be a commentary on anything.

The whole book has rape as its premise. I think there were over a dozen rapes in the first chapter alone. It starts off with Vikings raping women, but soon settles into its main theme, which is generations of ugly Grope family women kidnapping and force-marrying men. If this book had been written by a women I'm pretty definite it would be labelled as "feminism gone mad". As an elderly male figure of the establishment, there's barely a murmur about in in the reviews. The funny thing is that Sharpe is probably a femininst of sorts. His women are allowed to be ugly or beautiful, stupid or clever, weak or strong, but they're always very definite personalities and they're always influential to the action.

The one explicit sex scene in the book is really good, a touching hook up between a middle-aged man and woman. I've noticed that comedy writers often do the best sex scenes.

Sharpe also has wonderful flow to his sentence stucture. This may be not such a great book, and it's really short and ends strangely, but he still hasn't lost his rhythm. (6/10)

Currently reading: Bookman by Lavie Tidhar, set in an alternate-reality London where lizards are the royal family. It's incredibly imaginative so far, but not so good on plot or pacing.
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (Default)
Books I've read recently:

- Marked by Kristin & PC Cast
This was a profoundly terrible book. Not in its prose, which was fine enough. It was in its casual homophobia, its obsession with women being sluts, and complete lack of understanding of the concept of sexual consent. For instance, there was one early scene in which a girl forces oral sex on a boy, and the narrator is appalled because it's disgusting for him to be using her like that. Yes, really. The boy, who is repeatedly saying no, is the one who is using the girl. Disgusting! This same narrator seems to live in fear that she might accidentally do or say something slutty, wear slutty accessories, drink a glass of water that turns out to be a total slut... well, I might be embellishing with that last one. But she does have a severe and bizarre problem. I swear that "slutty" was the most common adjective in the book. Naturally, apart from the narrator, most of the female characters in the book are "sluts". One exception is the colourless female mentor figure whose interesting name raised my hopes for a second only to dash them. Another rare exception is the grandma, who is literally a magical native American. She can do magic. Yes. And her function is purely to tell the narrator how special she is. Of course.

Then we meet the gay best friend, and that's when I had to put the book down for good at about page 100. This guy is actually kinda cute, we're told, not like your usual "swishy girly-guy" gays, not like one of those. The sad thing is that you can tell that the authors are super pleased with themselves because they're being so progressive. (2/10)

- Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens (link to free ebook)
Now this is more like it. I can't believe I went my whole life without coming across this before. It's utterly beautiful. Sweeping, soaring prose. Funny, daring and unexpected plot twists. I can't do it justice, so here are some quotes:

"I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above."

"A well-packed question carrries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell."

"Still, if you keep on driving a pig or a story they will get at last to where you wish them to go."

This collection of Irish fairy tales was first published in 1892 and lavishly illustrated by Arthur Rackham. I read the unillustrated version for reasons of file size. Now I want to buy a great big paper copy so I can re-read this over and over again and enjoy the drawings as well. The only slight negative were the first and last tales, which were a little dull. But the meat of the story, about Fionn Mac Cuil, was just fantastic. I'd never heard these tales told from quite this angle before. It felt like a lot of liberty had been taken with the originals and I loved it. (8/10)

- Southern Fire by Juliet E McKenna
And if I thought the last book was good, this one blew my socks off. I can't wait to read the sequels. This was an intelligent pageturner, and I can give few better compliments than that.

It's classic fantasy, the main character being a warlord of a tropical island, living a life of ease and political intrigue among his slaves and many wives until a brutal magical attack from the south changes his world. There is a second point of view character but they don't get introduced until much later on. However, they turn out to be the real star of the book, and the two main characters have fantastic chemistry even before they meet. I don't want to give too much away. Unfolding the many layers of this society and the characters in it gave me so much joy.

Let me count the ways that I love this book. Firstly, the writer really knows what she's doing. The more I got into the story the more apparent this was. It's been too long since I felt that, perhaps since the Hunger Games. The pacing is excellent and never at the expense of characterisation.

Next is the worldbuilding. I'm fascinated by fictional universes which include slavery/servitude (Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde is also another favourite of mine). In this book, it's the good guys that own the slaves. There's so much dramatic potential in that. The issue did go a tad unexplored, simply because there were no non-slavery modern-type cultures to contrast with. But the examination of the consequences of slavery was still interesting - for instance, in this culture, a nobleman is not even regarded as being of age until he owns his first slave (invariably a trained bodyguard). And these are the characters that the author wants us to sympathise with, the slave-owners. It takes persuasive writing to do that.

The descriptions of the people, food, islands and buildings are brilliant. There was never a single point in the book that felt awkward or confusing. The only one downside was the warlord's love of augury. Part of his duties to his people were to read the signs - in the stars, in entrails, in the flight of birds and so on. There were a lot of descriptions of this. It was in character, but I did end up speed reading through them.

Still, looking forward immensely to the next book. (9/10)

Sjambak by Jack Vance (link to free ebook)
A quick one to finish. Sjambak is a short sci-fi tale from the 1950s. A journalist goes in search of a big scoop on a backwater planet after he hears a tall tale about an impossible Headless Horseman in Space. I'm a big Jack Vance fan but this is one of his lesser novellas. However, it still has his trademark humour and expert pulpy storycraft.

Classic golden age sci-fi! Space adventures! Mysterious legends! It doesn't quite deliver like his best work does, but it's still an enjoyable way to pass a few hours. (7/10)
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (Default)
Why are most modern novels so long, or at least the printed ones? Is it to do with typesetting costs? That's one good thing about ebooks, they can be any length.

As a reader, I definitely prefer novels as opposed to short stories. But as a writer, to go from nothing to a full-length novel in one bound is a bit much.

According to the Wikipedia page about AO3, the archive hosts more very short works than long ones, but readers prefer the longer works. The average very short story received fewer than 150 hits, while novel-length works are more likely to receive around 1,500 hits.

Anyway, this week the books I read were all pretty short.

Carmen by Prosper Mérimée, is from 1845. Here's the link to the free Gutenberg ebook, an excellent translation by Lady Mary Lloyd. It's that translation that most impressed me. The writing was so clear and alive, and the local references so descriptive, especially for a book from so long ago. Carmen is just a fantastic character. Charismatic, amoral and intelligent, she runs rings around everyone else. It's this surprisingly modern depiction of an anti-heroine that lifts the story.

The first part of the story is rather dull, setting up how the narrator came to hear the tale of a bandit, and the last one is just writer's notes, but the three brief chapters inbetween are thrilling, about smuggling and Romani life in the Spanish hills. (8/10)

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is also a shortish book, this time from 1922. (Link to the free Guterburg ebook). It's about the spiritual journey of the main character, Siddhartha, who not only shares a name with Buddha, but also meets him as a young man.

My first impression of the book was that it was unexpectedly homoerotic. The main relationship Siddhartha has is with his male best friend, Govinda, and we are both told of Govinda's love, and shown it as he follows the main character round like a puppy. Govinda drops out of the story for a while, but by the end Siddharta meets him again, providing the book's final, and almost shockingly sensual scene. However, all the sex in the book (and there's a lot of it) is firmly hetrosexual. It was even done quite well, which was a pleasant surprise.

Siddhartha is allowed to start off as a callow, rather stupid young man, and then grow up a little. That was the book's big plus point for me. He never really matures entirely, but he's definitely better at the end of the book than at the start, when he could be the encyclopedia illustration of an entitled, moping youth. I was never convinced of his conclusions, but he definitely worked hard for them. (7/10)

Currently reading: Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens - the prose is just great.
Also reading Marked by PC & Kristin Cast. A teen vampire novel, because I've never read one yet. Unfortunately, this one has some really dodgy ethics involving consent. Surprise surprise, I suppose. I'm hoping the protagonist will have some kind of character arc where she realises her mistake, but I'm not holding my breath.
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (Default)
I finished two books this week, which is good going for me recently.

Arsene Lupin by Maurice Leblanc (the link takes you to the free ebook version on Gutenberg) is a collection of short stories about the eponymous gentleman thief and master of disguise. In these light, implausible tales, Lupin is an almost unstoppable force against the bumbling French police force, reducing the tension considerably.

In the final story, the cast is enhanced by the surprise appearance of a fictional character that most people will recognise, and which I won't spoil in case you decide to read this.

The collection is topped and tailed by Lupin's meeting with a potential love interest. This adds a much needed vulnerablility as he wrestles for seemingly the only time with his criminal career choice because it may put him in an unfavourable light with her. All in all, an amusing read. 7/10

Hyperion by Dan Simmons, on the other hand, is a longer book, a dense science fiction tale with many literary references and a lot of world building. The main structure is based on the Canterbury Tales, with seven travellers on a pilgramage telling their stories. I admired the ambition to the book. It truly is a tale spanning time and space. The action sequences are very well done, something I didn't expect given the careful use of language in the more philosophical passages.

However, the writer is kind of obsessed with breasts. I gave up counting how many times he used the word, or how many ways he described them. This was just an amusing oddity until the last tale of the book. Then it unfortunately became enough to outweigh most of the good stuff, especially as the author was so intent on telling us about some barely legal breasts, their colour, their weight, the shadows falling under them, about when they were wet, or in the sun - oh, and by the way, did he mention yet that these breasts were barely legal and belonged to a "childwoman"? Only a couple of times each page. Not to mention that this passage was supposed to be presented by that woman's grandson. The rest of that final tale was a similar mismash of absurdity and unbelieveable motivations. Not that the sex scenes in any of the other tales were much better. There was a sex scene told from a female character's point of view in which her greatest moment of transcendental ecstasy is when the man comes. Some writers just can't write sex, yet insist on doing it. 6/10 (for the ambition and worldbuilding, I won't be continuing with this series)

Currently reading: Carmen by Prosper Merimee, which shouldn't take me long. It's barely a pamphlet.
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (carrot gentleman)
I finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, after a long gap during the middle of the book where I put it down. Up until the middle, I was sure it was going to join my favourite books list without a doubt, and when I eventually picked it up again I was still hoping that the story would make a recovery after the sudden and horrifically sad direction it took. Unfortunately, it did not, and the book ended on a long, miserable drawn-out and ultimately boring note, after starting with so much promise.

After that, I turned to The Cousins' War series of novels by Phillipa Gregory. Not something I had chosen for myself, these were a present. The books are set in Tudor times and I really appreciated that they were firmly told from the perspective of women. I was watching the new Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare history plays on the BBC at the same time, and it was fantastic to have the female characters from that more fleshed out, even if the versions of the stories were often at odds with each other. My main worry with the books was that they would be dull bonkbusters that stomped all over history. This was not really the case. A lot of research had obviously gone on, and characters were allowed to have genuine beliefs in witchcraft etc that seem ridiculous to modern eyes. The main failing, instead, was that the author seemed to have convinced herself that her version of history was the right one, in a similar way to a fanfic writer who convinces themselves that their version is more canon than the one by the original creators.

Another problem was that Gregory's prose can be very repetitive. She likes to remind us every single chapter who all the characters are and what relation they stand to each other, even when they are major characters like the husband of the narrator who we've known for ten chapters. Still, I was glad to have read this series. They've given me a genuinely new perspective on that time period.

Current reading: Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It's science fiction based on the structure of the Canterbury Tales, and so far it's ticking all the boxes of many of things I like: epic world-building, dense cultural references and weird non-human cultures.
inevitableentresol: lady in Edwardian dress holding a fan (fan lady Edwardian music hall)
Beowulf
On my list of ancient literature Beowulf was pretty high up on what I wanted to read soon, preferably the Seamus Heaney translation. So I was delighted to recently find out Radio 4 was re-running it as book of the week. (Most of it is still up there.) Even better, Heaney was reading it himself.

The translation was undoubtedly fine, both clear and with some enjoyable turns of alliteration. Heaney's reading is wonderful. Still, the epic tale itself was less interesting than I'd expected. I actually used the episodes several times as a cure for insomnia.

I amused myself by counting the number of synonyms for "mead hall" (gift hall, gold hall and royal hall being some of them). Wow, that really shows how little I got out of this work. Spot the Tolkien influence was another game I used to keep myself entertained. There was a lot of epic naming of weapons going on.

I have no desire whatsoever to buy the book now, which saddens me. After all that build up, I thought it was going to be better.

Books I've picked up in the last few months and then lost interest in
- My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk - An Ottoman minaturist is involved in a murder. Fantastic backdrop for a story. Unfortunately, I found the style over-florid and far too literary in a self-conscious way. Eventually my patience wore out. I'll probably go back later.

- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon - This is a really interesting book about WWII golems and comic book writers. Gripping! But the book is really heavy and my arthritis flared up (a family problem). So not so gripping after all. Looking forward to reading more of this soon.

Currently reading
Book One of the Harry Dresden Files. It's literally a light read, for which my hands thank the author. This is a detective noir pastiche involving a modern day wizard and starts faithful to its source. By the midway point, which is where I'm at now, it's showing signs of growing more into its own creature in a pleasing manner. Dresden shows a sense of self awareness that most 50s noir detectives lack, which is refreshing and makes me warm to him even through his occasional bouts of aggression. I'm hoping the style will keep improving as it goes on.

Want to read
Story of the Stone
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (carrot gentleman)
I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I'm only a few chapters in, but so far it's a really good book.

Then I came to a part where an escape artist has to make an escape in 23 degrees Celsius water. He acts like that's a really big deal. The character specifically mentions that he tried to use the tap water at home to practice on, but it was nowhere near that cold.

He lives in Europe. And it's April.

Just this one tiny detail is throwing me so hard that I had to stop reading. Where I live in Europe, where it hardly even ever snows, tap water is usually 5-10 degrees Celsius at that time of year. It doesn't reach near 23 degrees unless we have a crazy heat wave at the end of a long hot summer.

Seriously. What parallel universe does this guy live in where 23 degree Celsius water could be called cold?
And why has this one tiny thing thrown me right out of the story?
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (carrot gentleman)
I finished Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch about two months ago. It's a supernatural horror crime novel set in a magical version of London, and a fun read although it didn't jump to the top of my favourite-ever list.

Plus points:

- The main character actually had a proper background and personality (mixed race British/African) which played into the plot.

- It was was a sexy book without being sexist, a hard feat for a writer to pull off, especially when the main character is a male British cop.

- It made me look forward to the sequel, and I haven't felt that way about a book in a while.

- A lot of grisly things went on, especially at the start. But unlike The Lies of Locke Lamora which I read a few months previously it didn't come across like gratuitous torture porn and wasn't enough to put me off checking out the sequel. It was all necessary for the plot.

- There were lots of different female characters. Bad things happened to the women, but perhaps even more so to the men. There was never that use of cheap thrills violence on women that's prevalent in many crime dramas.

- Fantastic supporting characters, who all really felt like they had their own personalities and motivations. This was the biggest plus of the book.

- I really cared about the characters! I was shocked by some of the twists.

The one minus point:

The main character kept having these major leaps of logic to solve mysteries. They were real big tah-dah! moments. But the reasoning for these was always incomprehensible.

The first time it happened I thought I just hadn't been paying attention, or I was being a bit slow. By about the third time I was sure it was the book, not me. That was confirmed when I read other reviews which pointed out the same problem.

I got over this by just ignoring these parts completely, like I do in BBC Sherlock. When Sherlock makes some ridiculous leap of logic it's never very believable, but at least it's fun. Here it was just baffling.

I can see what the writer was trying to do. But it did detract a little because these were supposed to be climactic turning points of the book.

Anyway, pretty good. 7/10

book list

Jan. 10th, 2014 01:16 pm
inevitableentresol: a Victorian gentleman with the body of a carrot (Default)
Inspired by [personal profile] schemingreader

Books I read in 2013, with a short word on each.

Read more... )

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