Thursday, 31 January 2013

Something's Gotta Give: Slimline Reviews

My edits have now arrived, proving once and for all that this agent thing is really real and not something I made up in an overexcited moment.

I am preparing myself for the great task ahead of me: wantonly destroying all the characters and scenes in the book that are lovely but completely pointless to my plot. This will obviously take some time, and time is something that seems to be in short supply in my life already.

Therefore, I am proposing a change to this blog's reviewing rules. I just can't do a full blog post on every novel I read any more (and was anyone reading them anyway, my grandmother excepted?), so from now on I'm going to be doing lists of snap reviews.

Like this!

Before the Fact by Francis Iles

Alas, this was a good idea, lamely executed. Iles (pen name of Anthony Berkeley, a slightly less ingenious contemporary of Agatha Christie) was interested in making up new ways to write crime novels. This one is set before the crime actually happens. You'd think that this would be a promising concept. A woman wakes up one day convinced that her husband wants to murder her. But is she right?

Well... yes. As is painfully evident from the first page, her husband is going to murder her. We have to trail painfully through years of their life together, until we get to the day when he actually kills her. Believe me, by that point you will be begging him to go ahead and do it.

There's a very interesting question buried in Iles's premise, about whether we can ever really know what kind of person we're spending our life with, but he does absolutely nothing interesting with it. Frankly, this is one of the most boring thrillers I've ever read.

 If you want a book that does run with that idea in an awesomely clever way, try Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (which I just happened to read for The Bookbag the week after I read this). It's amazing. This isn't.

2 stars.

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

Now this one was good. A creepy historical murder mystery (it's Taylor, what else would you expect?) that's based on events during the childhood of Edgar Allen Poe, it's well imagined and satisfyingly well executed. It's got a nice, big, engrossing plot, full of mistaken identities, big chilly houses and lots of gloomy weather.

Taylor's novels aren't just mysteries, they're stories, and often quite involved ones - novels that happen to have murders in them, rather than novels about murder. The star of the show is always the setting, the (very accurately rendered) historical moment, and I thought that the world of The American Boy (Regency England) was particularly well imagined.

This is a book that you can get your teeth into, a blockbuster production that's good down to its smallest details. It's delightfully dark and twisty with just the right level of nastiness - basically, this is vintage Taylor. The sequel (prequel?) is out next month. Let me tell you, internet, I am excited.

4 stars.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Let me sell you this book in a single sentence: it's about a magical Victorian circus. A MAGICAL. VICTORIAN. CIRCUS. And not just any magical Victorian circus, either. It's pretty much the slickest, the most sideways and in all ways the best vision of the best possible circus you could ever imagine. Only it's better.

Morgenstern's cirque des reves assaults all your senses at once. Her writing makes you slaver over the burnt-caramel smell of popcorn, taste cinnamon pastries and light up your mind's eye with fire and fluttering ribbons. There's a circus tent that's a garden made entirely of ice, a tent where you climb up into a labyrinth in the clouds and one where you can smell stories.

The circus itself is the setting for an absolutely beautiful love story. The two main characters of The Night Circus are a boy and girl who have been brought up knowing that they have to fight a mysterious and fatal magical duel - except that when they actually meet, they realise that all they want to do is spend the rest of their lives together. Can they manage it? Or will the power of the circus, the setting for their great game, send events spinning out of their control? Morgenstern plays with time and place masterfully, messing with the lives of her wonderful characters in a way that's like watching an illusionist carry out a virtuoso magic trick.

When I finished this book, I physically missed it. I wandered tragically around my house hugging it to me and whispering, what do I do with my life? I loved The Night Circus heartbreakingly much. I can do nothing else but give it

5 stars.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

I have been itching to get my hands on this one for a long time. A teenage girl writes a series letters to a convicted murderer on Death Row, confessing to a terrible crime that she's kept secret from everyone she knows.

I loved this idea from the moment I first heard about it (you know how I love terrible secret crimes), but, more importantly, on closer acquaintance the story stands up to its premise.

I think what Pitcher has done with her hook is exceptional. She doles out the suspense - what did Zoe do, and who did she do it to? - in perfectly pitched little sips. I was going completely mental trying to work out which of the two possible victims Zoe has actually killed, so much so that I read half of the book on the train to work, and the other half on the train on the way home. Was the actual moment of the crime a let-down? Slightly, but that's just because I was keyed up to such a pitch that I would have been disappointed with anything that wasn't as insane as what I had been picturing in my head.

Zoe is a wonderful narrator, though, so realistic and funny that the book's success doesn't rest on the reveal of her crime alone. She's a real presence, and her words bring her world to life. Cleverly on Pitcher's part, one of the book's most engaging and present characters never actually appears in the text or says a single word. Zoe's murderer, Stuart Harris, never replies to her letters (he can't, since Zoe writes from 'Fiction Drive' to keep her story secret), but nevertheless he becomes an incredibly important person in her life. Zoe has made up a totally romanticised concept of him, the magical persona she needs to listen to her and understand the awful things that she's done. Like the rest of Ketchup Clouds, it's a perfectly pitched little detail that will break your heart and make you feel absolutely complicit in even the worst of Zoe's actions.

4.5 stars.

Monday, 21 January 2013

I think I'm going to like this year

Remember that list of 2013 writing resolutions I posted a few weeks ago? Well, I've completed one of them already.

As of yesterday, I am represented by Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency. Which means that, as of yesterday, I officially have a literary agent.

I still can't believe I get to type that sentence.

I'm already concocting a longer post about how my real life suddenly began to look a lot like the crazy dreams I've been making up in my head for years (no, really. I've had so many visions of an agent coming up to me and saying, I love your book! I want to help you publish it!, and now this is something that has actually happened to me).

For now, though, the important bit: the book.

Gemma is a children's agent, and the manuscript that I submitted to her is a 1930s-style murder mystery for teens, set in a girls' boarding school. As my original query letter says:

When Hazel Wong, pupil at elite girls' school Deepings, discovers her Science Mistress Miss Bell lying dead in the school Gym, she's horrified. But when she goes back to the spot five minutes later the body has vanished. Can Hazel and her crime-mad best friend Daisy Wright not only solve the murder, but prove that a murder happened in the first place?

A MOST UNLADYLIKE MURDER is a 1930s-style murder mystery, Enid Blyton with a twist. It is based on my own experiences at a girls’ boarding school and half a lifetime’s obsession with Agatha Christie and her contemporaries.

I know that I wrote it, and thus am a bit biased, but I really love Hazel and Daisy and I love their story. As soon as I met Gemma, I felt as though she loved them too - but in a way that was also very clear-eyed about what didn't work in the manuscript I had given to her. She got very excited about my novel, and then she gave me an enormous list of things that I need to change. This was slightly dreadful but mostly very exciting, because she is absolutely right. With her help, I think I can make A Most Unladylike Murder a whole lot better than I could ever have done on my own.

Obviously, this is just the beginning. Ahead of me looms an enormous mountain of edits - and after that, things will probably get even more difficult. But, all the same, I'm so excited to have been given this opportunity, and I can't wait to find out what's going to happen next.

I'll keep you all updated.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

I grow old, I grow old

Ah, what shall I be at fifty 
Should Nature keep me alive, 
If I find the world so bitter 
When I am but twenty-five?

When I was a sulky twenty year old university student I read these lines and thought that they would be perfect to share on the great and tragic occasion of my twenty-fifth birthday. Today happens to be that day, and as usual I realise that past me was being a touch over-dramatic. Do I feel bitter? Not more than usual. Do I feel twenty-five? Not that either.

In fact, I feel the same age I've done for years, which is about twelve. Inside I am still the same strange, slightly smelly child I have ever been, but for some reason people look at me and are taken in by the grown-up I have turned into on the outside. These people look at my grown-up clothes and grown-up face and they let me have things, like money and a flat and a driving license and cocktails. It's amazing.

(c) The Shifted Librarian
So, if that original twelve-year-old me could look into her future and see what I've made of her, what would she say about it?

First, I think she'd like the flat. She'd really like the shelves and shelves of books (though she would say MORE SCI FI PLEASE), and she would go into raptures about the large tank containing Watson the lizard. Twelve-year-old me had just decided that a bearded dragon was one of her lifetime's ambitions, so she would give me major kudos for that. She would also, I think, be very pleased to discover that I had a boyfriend. Twelve-year-old me was sure that, because she could not marry one of Diana Wynne Jones' heroes, she was going to die unloved and alone. In fact, the only thing about my living arrangement that would bother twelve-year-old me is my lack of a dog. Twelve-year-old me would be EXTREMELY displeased about this, because dogs are one of the reasons for being alive in the first place. (I agree with her, and I am sad about it too).

What about what I do with my life? Well, I think that if I could have sat my twelve-year-old self down and told her that one day, people were going to send me books FOR FREE so I could write reviews of them, she would have probably wept with joy. And if I'd added that I was going to spend my days helping to run a literary magazine and working in publishing houses, and write books in my spare time...

Well, I'm pretty sure that twelve-year-old me would look at me and say, "When I grow up, I want to be you."

Granted, I don't have a full-time paying job. Granted, my boiler makes strange and horrible noises every time it turns on. Granted, I have to pay bills and buy food and wash the kitchen floor, because it turns out that when you grow up no one else is prepared to do that sort of thing for you any more.

But there's something pretty great about being able to say that, at the age twenty-five, I have pretty much turned into the person I always wanted to be.

Monday, 14 January 2013

1001 Books Reviews: Kindle Reads Edition

This new Kindle of mine is not good for my to-read pile, although it is already doing excellent things to the status of my 1001 Books challenge. I can now get endless out-of-copyright books for free, and this has sent me slightly loopy with excitement. Here's a quick run-down of my latest classic reads.

Vathek by William Beckford

A lot of people wonder why I'm doing this 1001 Books project. To be honest, when I stare into a future consisting of the whole of The Forsyte Saga, I wonder as well. But while there are some 'classics' that give reading for pleasure a bad name (James Joyce, I am looking at you), there are some that remind me that there's method to my madness. And Vathek turns out to be one of the latter.

One of my favourite Gothic novels of all time is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. This completely bonkers little book was one of the novels that kicked off the entire genre - and when you consider that it starts with a GIANT, UNEXPLAINED HELMET just FALLING OUT OF THE SKY and CRUSHING SOME GUY TO DEATH, you understand why people (especially me) have loved the Gothic ever since.

To my great joy, Vathek turns out to be The Castle of Otranto with camels. Completely insane and completely nonsensical, it's the literary equivalent of a Vegas showgirl's outfit, an outrageous flight of fancy by someone who has absolutely no idea what he's talking about and doesn't even care. It's a nonsense view of the Middle East, so off-target that it's almost beyond offensive (note: almost, but not quite), just because it so little resembles any actual Middle East that ever was or will be.

Illustration by Richard Westall, V&A collection
Marina Warner's Stranger Magic, which I read a few months ago, explains how the first European translation of The Thousand and OneNights, Antoine Galland's 1704-17 French version, sparked off a massive fetishy craze for all things Oriental. People literally could not get enough of houris and dervishes and magic carpets, and you can absolutely see this coming out in Vathek. There are evil enchantresses and mummies and camels (which I think Beckford may have confused with elephants) and deadly potions and Genii and riches beyond compare... and so on, and so on, in total excess, for ever.

There really isn't a plot, to speak of - things just happen, and keep on happening, until the story ends with everyone dead in a big ridiculous heap. Nominally, it's about Vathek, an evil ruler who has a Palace of Sin, and... goes on a quest to find some sort of Oriental hell (said quest keeps being interrupted as Beckford gets bored and makes new plots up). Vathek also has a super-evil enchantress mother, who likes killing people and has a poisonous camel (the mother and the camel are my favourite parts of this book), and they do stuff, and then they meet this beautiful princess and... I don't even know. It's like all of the Arabian Nights got rolled up into one. Vathek is totally crazy and ridiculous, and also terribly written, and I totally loved it.

3.5 stars

Trilby by George du Maurier

I am a Dracula superfan. Seriously. I am so obsessed that I am tiresome about it. Start me talking about the lack of good movie versions of this book and I could bore you for hours. Also I wrote an essay for my MA about Freud and Dracula, on how Dracula's female vampires are just poorly-disguised hysterics who need to be cured by the love (and the stakes) of good Victorian men (think about this. It is true). So when I heard people saying that the Svengali character in Trilby is basically the Count Dracula of the music scene, in that he is villainously foreign and enjoys altering the character of women by hypnosis, I knew I had to read the book. It was the first thing I downloaded on my new Kindle, and the first thing I read on it, and I thought that it was awesome.

Trilby, although it's been largely forgotten about today (apart from when people talk about an overbearing impresario being a 'Svengali', and even then they've usually got no idea what they're really referring to), was a huge craze when it came out. It was basically the Twilight of 1894. In the same way that people buy underwear and bedspreads with Edward's face on them today, people in 1894 bought Trilby perfume, and Trilby boots, and Trilby hats (yes, trilby hats! That's where the term comes from).

Trilby is about three English bohemians in Paris in the 1850s - think the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gone Gallic - and the artists' model they all fall for, Irish lass Trilby O'Farrell. I was expecting Trilby to be a mimsy little Dickens heroine, or a slender and fainting fin-de-siecle angel, but instead she's a big, rowdy, fun-loving woman with a great sense of humour. For once, it's not hard to see why every man she comes across is so fascinated by her - the three Englishmen, of course, and all their friends, but also their sinister foreign acquaintance Svengali. Svengali's possibly Jewish (it's that kind of latently racist book), a musical impresario who's got a good sideline in hypnotism. He loves Trilby in a way that's terribly creepy (his most-used chat-up line is basically: if you don't love me then one day I will come VISIT YOUR CORPSE IN THE GRAVEYARD, which... is not a turn-on), and keeps trying to hypnotise her in a pretty obvious bid to get her under his evil spell.

One of du Maurier's original drawings
Unsurprisingly, Trilby is not taken with Svengali. More inexplicably, she is taken with one of the three Englishmen, the painter Little Billee (I know. His name is awful, twee and tiresome, just like Little Billee himself), but after their love-affair is broken up by Billee's officious middle-class idiot of a mother, Billee and his friends lose track of Trilby. Five years later, though, they hear about a mysterious Madame Svengali who's taking the whole world by storm with her astonishing vocal feats. And Madame Svengali is always accompanied by her husband, who manages her stage performances and seems to control her in every way...

It's really interesting to read this book now, because (just like Dracula) its main plot twist has become so immediately obvious. In 2013 it's impossible to get more than ten pages into Dracula without thinking, dude. Come on. He's a VAMPIRE, and likewise you can't read Trilby without understanding that Trilby is being hypnotised. Both ideas were completely new when the books first came out - that was one of the reasons why they were so popular - but while in one respect this makes their plots totally dated, there's also something about the characters' totally shocked responses to the nature of the horror that's unfolding in front of them that still feels fresh.

It also doesn't hurt that Trilby is such a great heroine. She's in the Mina Harker mould of smart, bold New Women, and while she's obviously not without her issues, she's a damn sight better than most of the rest of the leading women of the time. And then there's all the Bohemian hijinx that goes on at the beginning of the book (fun, if rambling), and the super hyped-up theatrical scenes at the end (fun, if OTT). I can absolutely see why 1894 loved this book so much. In fact, I pretty much agree with them.

4 stars.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

The fact that I read A Modest Proposal for the first time a week ago is one of the dark literary secrets of my heart. It was on my university reading list and I, er, didn't see it there, I guess. I sat in my seminar for an hour nodding intelligently and privately thinking EATING BABIES? What IS this? Well, I can now tell you that A Modest Proposal is indeed about eating babies. More specifically, it's a deceptively calm and understated response to the problem of Irish poverty that suggests that it would be cost-effective to just eat the nation's excess children.

Swift lays out a whole economic model: each baby would fetch so much money and would save so many pounds of food a year, and their skins could be made into so much leather, and so on, and so on. I know it was written more than 200 years ago, but I can very easily imagine this being published today as a long comment piece in a left-leaning paper, ironically insisting that we all pop down to the Job Centre and pick ourselves up a tasty NEET or two for dinner. Swift's prose is incredibly dark and very barbed, but (probably because of that darkness) it's also extremely funny. Sadly, it's also still very relevant.

The Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

I'm pretty much lumping this together with A Modest Proposal. They're both polemical state-of-the-nation pieces dressed up as bits of almost-fantasy - with, in The Tale of a Tub's case, a side of transparent allegory. The Tale itself comes chopped up into little bits, with random little pieces, or 'digressions', about criticism and authorship and modern taste shoved in between its chapters. These are funny and quite clever in themselves (I guess), but also pointedly pointless and with their wit incredibly overworked in that special self-hating eighteenth century style that really hasn't aged well. Honestly, they nearly finished me off. I had to strive to get through them - but every time I got close to breaking point, another part of the Tale would come along and wake me up again.

What still works about Swift - and there's something about him that really does still work - is his ability to write satire that, while it obviously started its life directed at a completely contemporary issue, nevertheless manages to pick out timeless human failings that will never stop feeling relevant to readers. The Tale is a criticism of different factions of Christianity, pointing out how far each sect has diverged from the religion's original tenets. It's about three 'brothers' who are given a 'will' by their 'father'. They follow it for a while, and then they all begin to reread the document in ways that fit with what they want out of life. There are lots of really good digs at a lot of holy cows, and while a lot of them are aimed at Catholicism, Anglicanism comes in for a few nice shots too. Swift clearly thought that the whole world was full of idiots (he is probably right), and was very good at communicating that vision in a way that makes you laugh even as you feel depressed.

Swift was most definitely cleverer than me. I think I'd have enjoyed knowing him, back in the day, and I do enjoy reading the things that he's written. But all the same, I don't think I'm ever going to read either A Modest Proposal or The Tale of a Tub again.

They both get 3 stars.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Delicious Death: Sophie Hannah

Another book that I read at the end of 2012! This holiday season I read A LOT OF BOOKS.

I first really came across Sophie Hannah when I saw her speak about literary crime novels a few months ago. She talked about writing puzzles and loving Agatha Christie and she pretty much had me from there. I asked for her first novel for Christmas, it arrived in my stocking and then I read it in a day.

Little Face is about new mother Alice Fancourt who comes home from her very first trip out of the house alone to find a strange baby in her two-week-old daugher's cot. Is she insane? Or is this a plot cooked up by her controlling husband - a man whose first wife died a few years ago in mysterious circumstances...?

Good plot idea, right? And rest assured, this book was GOOD. It was a thriller that actually thrilled, a book with a plot so involving that I literally couldn't put it down. And it was very, very well written. If I didn't believe in the concept before, after reading Little Face I couldn't possibly argue that there is no such thing as a crime novel that is also good literature. (Please note: I am not arguing against this for a second. Of COURSE crime novels are literature. I will defend the crime novel to the bitter death).

Hannah's very good at teasing you with details that seem mundane, until she flips them around to reveal the whole frighteningly crazy picture they build up to reveal. Alice's dull, shiny upper middle class life, in her big house with her proud husband and wealthy mother in law, steadily turns into Gulag Suburbia, everyone playing everyone else with layer upon layer of insane mind games that aren't so far from the mind games Hannah herself is playing with her readers. This is a crime novel where you aren't actually sure for quite some time whether a crime has actually been committed at all, let alone who committed it.

Even the police are scarily fallible, both of the main detectives personable but deeply flawed characters who get involved in a weird love triangle with Alice that gets steadily more strange and awkward as the novel goes on. Hannah's very interested in how people interact with each other, the emotional motives behind every action that a person makes. It's a psychological story with an intensely inward-looking plot, and it absolutely works. I tore through it like a storm.

The only flaw I could find was in the ending. Little Face has a twist in its tale, but whereas there are books (see Before I Go To Sleep) where the twist has you running through the house yelling I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT! I AM FABULOUS!, there are also books where you stop, stare blankly ahead of yourself and go, wait, what? Little Face, for me, was one of the second kind. The conclusion was objectively very clever, but it smacked me in the face with a spin on events that I didn't totally like. Some characters didn't get the resolution I'd hoped for for them (or, in other cases, the retribution), and the ending left me feeling a bit thwarted. I suspect, though, that my reaction to the reveal comes from the fact that I was enjoying the book and its characters so very much that I got carried away and started writing my own ending in my head, and when Hannah's perfectly good one (inevitably) didn't match mine it confused me. I mean, I love Dorothy Sayers but I am still mad at her for making the wrong person the murderer in The Documents in the Case, ten years after I first read it. Not that I think the wrong person did it here, but... you get what I mean. I have difficulty turning off the 'writer' part of my brain sometimes.

Nonetheless, god does Sophie Hannah write well, and god is she a sneaky plotter. This was great, and I need all of her other books immediately.

4 stars

Friday, 4 January 2013

1001 Books Review: Parade's End

Let's carry on the 2013 reviews by featuring something I actually read in 2012. I know, I've been lazy. But there is just so much to this book that I'm daunted by the thought of trying to sum it all up. Here goes.

Parade's End has recently been a TV show starring Benedict Cumberbatch and his strangely motionless face, but, before that, it was a novel by Ford Madox Ford. In fact, it is four novellas packed into one enormous 800 page tome. About the effect of World War I on England in general, and about one hidebound bastion of English maleness in particular, Parade's End is the story of how Christopher Tietjens learned to shut up and be unfaithful to his wife already.

Tietjens presents himself as the last outpost of true English values, which he sees as being located firmly in the eighteenth century. This is brilliant in ways that Ford probably couldn't even predict, since these days we think of English values being eternally Victorian (or even Edwardian) - proving, if any more proof were needed, how nostalgia is permanently jumping backwards to the year before, and the year before that, and so on for ever. I bet the first Homo sapiens got nostalgic about being Australopithicae.

Anyway, Tietjens has a sulky and unfaithful wife called Sylvia who sort of hates him and sort of loves him and LONGS to divorce him - but he won't, because he believes in keeping up appearances (also known as parades, you see. There are a lot of different parades in this novel). Then Tietjens falls in love with a youthful suffragette called Valentine Wannop (a glorious name) and dooms them, because of his refusal to divorce his wife, to years of sexless super-British yearning. And then along comes WW1.

None of their faces ever move.
I'd read some Ford before - The Good Soldier, coincidentally also about miserable early twentieth-century marriage - so I was sort of expecting a more protracted version of that. But not at all. The Good Soldier is an Edwardian novel, albeit one with its petticoats over its head, but Parade's End is a fully-fledged modernist text, slightly mad and stark and with lashings of disconnected stream-of-consciousness confusion. Almost the whole thing is told as a series of flashbacks, which is very disconcerting. A character sits staring at a pot of flowers for ten straight pages, thinking about elephants and metaphysics and breasts, and then suddenly it's five years later and we're in France and the same character is huddling under a shell bombardment that sounds like metaphysical elephants dropping pans on each other's breasts. Or something.

I'm being facetious - really, I enjoyed this book. Sylvia, especially, is an astonishing character. She's so bad, but you understand and empathise with every step of that badness and with every nutty action it drives her to carry out. It's also got a lot of very smart things to say about gossip and reputation. So much mud is flung at Tietjens and the other characters during the novel and (I think this is a brilliant touch) not a single one of those rumours is true. Everyone is better, and more boring, than they are painted. Even Tietjens' brother Mark, who lives in sin with his mistress, has been faithful to her for twenty years and comes home every evening to the meat and potatoes she has cooked for his supper.

For a book that seems like it might be full of reactionary muttering about how bad change is, I was quite delighted by how balanced Ford is about the way that life - and the world - is constantly moving on. Christopher needs the parades he's so obsessed with to be over so he can finally free himself from mad Sylvia. His brother Mark, heir to an ancestral title he doesn't want, needs the world to change so he's not forced to manage a huge estate that he hates. Those that don't or won't change die - no, literally, they die - and what's left are those who are willing to alter and compromise. Thank god, Parade's End is a nostalgic novel that's not sentimental.

There are a lot of lovely things about Parade's End.  The relationship between Tietjens and Valentine is wonderful - they fall in love by having an argument about Latin translations, and the main reason why Tietjens fights through the war to get back to her is because he wants to spend the rest of his life talking to her about interesting ideas. The book itself, for all its convolutions and modernist clever-clever, is beautifully written and the characters are sympathetically drawn. This is not a novel to pick up lightly - seriously, it's got a heft like a brick - but it is one that deserves to be given the time it takes to read it. And, having read it, I can endorse the amazing BBC TV series even more fully than I did before.

4 stars.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Review battle: ladies of the night edition

The two books I'm reviewing today complimented each other in ways I didn't even fully realise they would until after I'd finished the second. The connection I was originally going for, ignorant of all but their blurbs, was prostitutes. The protagonist of the first, after all, is a very successful one, and the action of the second centres around a home for (supposedly) reformed ones. But while the wholly expected pleasure of the first is its unrepentant, unlikely, idiotic naughtiness, its absolute commitment to the propagation of the myth of the happy and gloriously rapacious prostitute, the unexpected joy of the second is how it takes that expectation and kicks it straight in the face.

So, step into the ring Fanny Hill and The Unpierced Heart.

Fanny Hill by John Cleland

This is a novel on my 1001 Books list, and one with a history as eventful as its contents. First published in 1748 while its author languished in debtor's prison, it's been in trouble with the censors ever since. It's got a long and proud tradition of being only available in underground, bootleg editions, and it wasn't until the 1970s that it was available to purchase in legal and unexpurgated form. Essentially, the courts decided that while it was obscene, they'd seen obscener, and that it's also a pretty well-written book whatever its content. And I'd have to agree.

Rest assured: this book is erotica. Of course it is. Approximately half of the words in it are descriptions of genitals, and most of the rest are lavish descriptions of how those genitals are used. But it's also a lot of really charming fun. Fanny herself is a lively, lovely heroine. She's sharp and determined, with a sexuality that's shown in a basically positive light, and her story is an engaging Bildungsroman with naughty bits. You want her to triumph over adversity and masculine wiles, and she does. Cleland's female protagonist isn't just languishing about like Clarissa (a character I hate so much that I swear to god I would set her on fire if I ever came across her in real life), she's getting up and taking control of her own fortunes. Yes, she's doing it by, er, having graphic sex with a lot of men, but this is a woman with ambitions and intelligence, who knows what she wants and gets it.

It's much clearer to me than it usually is why this book deserves a place on the 1001 list.  It's not just a good novel in and of itself, it's a foundational text for a genre which could be broadly defined as Books About Saucy Ladies of the Night, and which still sells today. The Crimson Petal and the White, Memoirs of a Geisha, Tipping the Velvet - they're all Fanny's progeny in one way or another.

Which brings me on to my next point. Yes, I enjoyed Fanny Hill. Yes, some bits of it are sexy. But others are much more problematic. A lot of episodes that are presented as happy fun sex times are, to put it baldly, rapes. Waking a woman up by having sex with her? That would be called rape. Grabbing a woman and forcing her to have sex with you? Yes, that's rape too. Sadly, many people in 2012 still struggle to understand what is rape and what is not (clue: rape is when you have sex with someone without their consent), so it's difficult not to conclude that Cleland, writing 250 years ago, was part of an anti-female culture so horrendous that he should get at least something of a pass. But acknowledging that doesn't make my discomfort with parts of Fanny Hill go away. A lot of this novel is sexploitation. Fanny and her female friends may be engaged in conning their johns out of some serious money, but they do it by allowing themselves to be abused and belittled in ways that are described for the express titillation of the reader.

So while reading Fanny Hill made me realise where a lot of the novels I love have come from, it also made me understand exactly what those more modern books are subverting. Tipping the Velvet, in particular, suddenly made about 100% more sense to me - while it essentially follows Fanny's main plot points (even down to some of the orgies), Waters makes her 'Fanny' a lesbian and gives her and the other characters back actual human emotions - like shame at being publically abused, or anger at being forced into prostitution. It was a huge aha! moment for me - I finally discovered what book Sarah Waters is mad at, and why she's justified in so being.

Actually, since Waters wrote an entire book pastiching Fanny Hill, I suspect she loves it even while she's being mad at it, which is pretty much how I feel myself. There's so much wrong with Fanny Hill's morality, and so many dumb contrivances in its plot, but all the same I also thought it was pretty great. And I'm not going to apologise for either emotion.

3.5 stars

The Unpierced Heart by Katy Darby

Katy, as well as being an author, happens to be my fellow Story Sunday editor over at Litro. When I first joined the team during my MA last year I told our boss Eric that I was writing an essay about Victorian women in public places and he said, "You should meet Katy. She's writing a book. It's about WHORES." "Horses?" I asked, bewildered. "WHORES!" said Eric. "WHOOOOORES."  And that was how I found out about Katy Darby.

Katy and I obviously have a lot of the same mind-furnishings. A pastiche sensation novel set in Victorian Oxford and written as a series of 'discovered' documents by linked narrators? It's like someone wrote the book I didn't know I wanted to read. After all, I grew up in the nerdy, donnish world of Oxford colleges (where the nineteenth century is still playing on repeat), and Wilkie Collins and friends were one of the best discoveries of my teenage years.

Sensation novels are so wonderfully plotted, so exciting (stuff happens! All the time!) and so much fun - but I've got to admit that most of their female characters are horrible. The blonde haired angel with the heart of a devil beating in her bosom, the mimsy little heroine so stupid she can barely spell her name and the smart lady too mannish to be loved are all tropes on constant repeat, and none of them (except maybe the smart woman) even vaguely resemble any real person I have ever met. But while there's nothing to be done with the output of long-dead authors, I'm damn sure (see above) that I want any modern takes on their genre to correct those errors. And Katy, I discovered to my joy about three quarters of the way through The Unpierced Heart, has answered my prayers.

Her anti-heroine Diana seems, at first meeting, to be a vapid, pornographic femme fatale through and through. She makes evil decisions for totally random reasons and ruins the lives of worthy men with callous abandon. First encountered by priggish frame narrator Edward Fraser when he is a Theology undergrad at Cambridge in the early 1880s, Diana's unfaithfulness has already destroyed two of her lovers. So when Fraser meets her again at Oxford, under a new name and with yet another one of his friends within her grasp, he determines to unmask her for the fiend she really is. Can he save his innocent friend, the pathologist Stephen Chapman, from falling prey to Diana's charms? Or will she triumph again?

That's the story that Darby is apparently telling. But, as the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that there's a whole lot more going on here. Without giving the (very satisfactory) twist away, it emerges that Diana has (gasp!) reasons for the things she does. She is actually... a human being! Thoughts go through her brain and emerge as ideas! It's a modern miracle.

Her settings and set-ups may be wholly sensation-novel conventional, but Darby has actually thought about what she's writing and the result is a very intelligent reimagining of all those thoughtless, worn-out sensation tropes. Fanny Hill temporarily seduced me into buying the myth of the willing prostitute, but The Unpierced Heart reminded me that, in reality, they inhabit a grim, dangerous and thankless world where a woman won't magically fall in love with the life she's been forced to lead. Diana comes to Oxford to run a halfway house for Jericho prostitutes (hence the title of the hardback edition of this book, The Whores' Asylum), and although most of said prostitutes are unrepentant, they are also wholly human. They're no better and no worse than the novel's men (and actually much better than its male villain), and that's as it should be. There are misunderstandings and stupid decisions on all sides, and the tricky plot rattles along under the steam of those confusions to produce a fast-paced and intriguing sensation narrative that's nevertheless a lot more emotionally real than the genre it's working from.

I honestly really liked this book. It's very clever, it's well written (with a good ear for the turns of phrase used by novelists from Darby's chosen period), it's set in one of my favourite eras and it's about one of my favourite places. Spot on, essentially. I may have liked Fanny Hill, but this descendant of hers is one that I both like and fully approve of.

4 stars.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year's Excitements and Writing Resolutions: 2013

Dear readers, welcome to 2013! In the words of my friend Alice, I've got a good feeling about this one.

Because it is January 1, I thought I'd ring in the new year by mentioning a few of the amazing new books that I'm looking forward to getting my hands on in the months ahead. Not mentioned, of course, are all the books I don't know that I'm going to fall in love with yet. I especially can't wait for those.

- In just TWO DAYS the whole world will finally have the chance to read Jack Wolf's debut The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones. I reviewed it for The Bookbag last year and was absolutely blown away by it. Get out there and buy this book! Unless you don't like the Gothic. In which case, there is no hope for you.

- In February, there's a new Andrew Taylor novel, The Scent of Death. It's Andrew Taylor. It's historical murder. What else do I even need to say?

- In March there's a new Fred Vargas, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. I am DANCING IN MY SEAT about this one. I am so excited. Her books are creepy and quirky and totally charming. And weird. Her last crime novel was about real vampires, for heavens' sake.

- In May the second in Stephen Gallagher's (that link is to his Q&A for Litro, he's great) series about Detective Sebastian Becker, The Bedlam Detective, comes out in the UK. I read the first one for The Bookbag (again) and loved it, so I can't wait for the next installment. I want it now.

- In June there's (finally!) a new Neil Gaiman novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I saw Gaiman speak last year, and he signed my copy of Stardust and I said thanks and cried a little bit out of sheer love. Basically, whatever this is about, I will read it.

I must be missing loads. What else is coming up? Please chip in.

And now, for something a bit more personal: my own literary resolutions for the year ahead. This year, I will achieve! Probably. Unless I don't. We shall see. Anyway...

- I will finish the book I am writing, edit it, edit it again and begin to query it. I will be rejected, and emerge refreshed.

- I will continue querying my crime novel like grim death until I get an agent for it.

- I will get at least 25% of the 1001 Books list read before the year is out. (I am currently at 20.78%, so this has to be achievable. It has to be.)

- I will not be a snob about the literary merit of any book unless I have actually read at least a part of it.

- I will write, something, every day. I will try to write fiction every day, but reviews also count.

- I will actually plan my books before I write them.

- When a scene gets boring, I will listen to Raymond Chandler and send a person bursting through the door with a gun. Indeed, I will remember that when I am bored by a scene my readers will be too.

- I will remember that I am not under a contractual obligation to put a dog into everything I write.

- Along the same lines, I will at least try to write something that does not in any way feature a murder. That said, when I do feature death...

- I shall not murder any prostitutes in anything I write. Those poor ladies of the night! What easy victims they make. But enough already. I will only kill rich people, preferably men.

- I will write more short stories. They are good for me and good to do.

- Sort of continuing on from that, I will enter more (also known as: any) literary competitions. Because it is no good writing things if I don't let anyone else see them.

- I will get a pet lion. No, wait. That one was a joke. I hear those things are expensive.

So, onwards! To 2013 proper. We can do this.