You basically never find what you were expecting to

Girl on the ShoreA Girl on the Shore
by Inio Asano
translated from Japanese by Jocelyne Allen

I picked up this manga because it sounded sweet from the plot synopsis – a tale of teenage romance – and the cover art is beautiful. I somehow missed the significance of the cellophane wrapper, not to mention the small label “Ages 18+”.

In some ways my first instinct was right. It’s a good story, often a sweet one, with truly incredible artwork throughout. I frequently paused to show Tim a page that moved me in its beauty, often dialogue-free.

Koume Sato is in her final year of junior high (ages 14–15). She likes pretty boy Misaki, but he uses her and then ignores her, so she runs to Keisuke Isobe, who she knows has a crush on her because he has previously confessed as much. They strike up a relationship, but keep it secret because at school Koume is popular, while Keisuke is considered a weird loner. In public Koume hangs out with a group of girls, gossiping, while at Keisuke’s house she discovers manga and indie music. She is clearly using Keisuke, but it isn’t clear whether or not he minds. Sure, she ignores him most of the time, but then so does everyone, especially since his brother’s suicide.

So far, so right up my alley. There are side characters who in some cases become significant, there are issues about school and studying, and always the gorgeous seaside town setting. But…this is sexually explicit manga, and the two people we repeatedly see having sex are Koume and Keisuke. We learn early on that Misaki demanded that Koume give him a blowjob before telling her he’s not interested, and that her reaction was to run to Keisuke and ask him to sleep with her. Their relationship is almost entirely about sex, and sexual experimentation.

Continue reading “You basically never find what you were expecting to”

If she didn’t have bad luck, she’d have no luck at all

Lucky Penny cover

Lucky Penny
by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota

As last month was pretty much a failure on the books front, I decided to turn to a medium that has helped me out of slumps before: comics. At the start of the month, Tim and I treated ourselves to a trip to Forbidden Planet, where we spent far too much on comics. This was one of the random books I picked up.

The choice wasn’t completely out of the blue. I’ve read a few things from Oni Press and always enjoyed them – Scott Pilgrim and Ivy being cases in point. Like Scott Pilgrim, Lucky Penny is about someone in their early adulthood struggling to figure out life and largely failing. But without superpowers.

Penny Brighton loses her job and her roommate on the same day and, no longer able to afford rent, decides to move into a friend’s storage unit. She talks her way into a job at a launderette and flirts with a guy at the local gym to get free showers there. She adopts a stray cat for company. She fends off would-be looters most nights. She’s surviving, but can she really keep this up? Can she turn life into something better than survival?

Continue reading “If she didn’t have bad luck, she’d have no luck at all”

We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

I had read conflicting reviews of this book, so I’d put it to one side for a while. But then along came the Books on the Nightstand Summer Bingo, with that classic square “A random book from a shelf”. So I stood in front of the TBR shelves, closed my eyes, waved my hand around, and lo and behold this was what I picked out.

The framework is the story of two girls’ friendship in Naples in the 1950s, but through Elena and Lila we really get to know a whole neighbourhood and all the minutiae of money, class, society and education that will affect the lives of everyone born there.

To begin with Elena and Lila are not all that different. Elena, who narrates the story, is the daughter of a porter at the city hall, while Lila is daughter of a shoemaker. Elena admires Lila from a young age and so wants to be her friend that she hangs around nearby, playing with her doll at the same street corner, until Lila has tested her bravery enough times to form a lasting bond.

“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us…Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this.”

Continue reading “We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us”

Light that gave the present the texture of the past

ESPERANZA-STEsperanza Street
by Niyati Keni

This is a coming of age tale (yes, another one; I think I’m on a run of them) set in a port town in the Philippines. It follows the lives of those who live and work on Esperanza Street, which runs from the sea, a fairly poor port area, uphill to more affluent homes. Joseph works as a houseboy for Mary Morelos, a widow whose own two sons are close to him in age, so he exists in an uneasy balance between servant and friend. Though his story is filled in through flashbacks, the bulk of the novel is set in the summer of 1981, when irrevocable change comes to Esperanza. It’s also the summer he becomes a go-between for one of the Morelos boys, which may turn out to be a dangerous position.

“Though Bobby Morelos had been dead for years, his presence persisted in the room…In a certain tricky late-afternoon light that gave the present the texture of the past, it almost felt as if he might walk into the room at any moment.”

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I am merely bored, not a defiant brat

The Chocolate Money
by Ashley Prentice Norton

Does a compelling story outweigh all the other elements of a book being less than compelling? For me, no, but for a lot of other people I suspect it would. So I recommend you keep that in mind while reading my not-so-glowing opinions below.

I was sent this book unsolicited but the premise was vague enough and the straplines on the cover intriguing enough that I gave it a chance. After this I am definitely going back to books I have bought for myself for a while.

The story is that of Bettina, raised by her single-parent chocolate heiress mother Babs. Babs is a slightly brattish partier who loves her daughter but isn’t going to change her life for her. We follow Bettina from the age of 10 to 16 (plus a brief flash forward at the end), dipping into her life at times that I think were supposed to have been picked out for their significance (there is a slightly heavy handed mention of Bettina’s class assignments for an English teacher including her writing about many of the events from the start of the book). The problem is that, while they might be significant (but not out of the ordinary) for the average kid, from a story about a millionaire I sort-of expect more. Or at least different.

Let’s take those cover straplines that I find completely misleading. First, “When you have everything, trust no-one”. That implies a thriller, or at least lots of betrayal and distrust. As far as I can tell the one doing most of the betraying in this book is Bettina. She doesn’t make friends. Though she wants to, she picks the wrong role models and then blames it all on her mother when it goes wrong. And that is the sort of book this is, it’s about a tween/teen’s privileged but oh-so-traumatic life. Not my cup of tea.

And the other strapline? “An adorable child. A phenomenal fortune. A mother like no other.” I did not find Bettina adorable. As far as I can tell none of the other characters did so why should I? The fortune bit is true but Bettina seems strangely clueless about spending it. For instance, when she arrives at boarding school with one small duffel of clothes and sees that all the other girls brought bedding and other home comforts why doesn’t she call some expensive shop in Boston or New York and get a bunch of stuff delivered? It makes no sense.

As for her mother, I felt a lot of the time that I was supposed to be disapproving of Babs and yes, she’s not the ideal mother figure but she’s not that bad either. She isn’t absent, she includes Bettina in her life despite her having a full-time nanny. There is one occasion when she slaps Bettina across the cheek that Bettina is still obsessing about years later, suggesting it was a one-off. And there is one scene when Bettina gets drunk when she’s only 12, which I think was supposed to be shocking, but she does it at a big party at her house so help is immediately at hand and we later learn that afterward her mother teaches her about drinking alcohol. How many millionaire kids have far far worse stories to tell?

Babs does talk coarsely, that is true. I am all in favour of talking to children about sex and relationships but minus the personal element that Babs favours. Also, her refusal to tell Bettina who her father is doesn’t strike me as unreasonable and felt a lot like a contrivance to generate a guessing game for the reader.

Plot holes aside (and there’s a few – she hero worships her mother so why does she want to “escape” her? who does she stay with in Paris every summer?), I did find the story drew me in. Certainly, the middle section, where Bettina is at boarding school, kept me reading late at night and first thing in the morning. It’s an easy writing style and I have always liked school-based/coming-of-age plots. Plus this section had a decent range of characters with different agendas.

I guess my problem is that the writing had nothing going for it other than ease of absorption. It didn’t feel like an authentic child’s voice at all but it wasn’t a knowledgeable “future me looking back” angle either. It does that thing that annoys me of detailing clothes and make-up minutely, but it doesn’t do this consistently, in fact mostly only for Babs. It’s a first-person narration, so shouldn’t Bettina notice everyone in the same way? At least to compare them with her mother?

I struggled to pick out any stand-out quotes so I will just give you the opening line, which is a reasonable example of the whole flavour of the book:

“The day I cut my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.”

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Flavour of the south

The Romance Readers’ Book Club
by Julie L Cannon

I bought this book on my recent trip to the United States because it looked like both a fun, easy read and an authentic flavour of the southern US. It deals well with some big issues, though it doesn’t come to the conclusions that I would necessarily have hoped for or agreed with.

This book treads a fine line between sweet fluffy teen romance and deeper “issues”-ridden prose with some literary merit. For the most part it is well written and engaging but some of the exposition was clunky, especially at the start. That said, the characters are believable and the story had me interested enough that I read the whole book in one sitting.

The story is that of teenage Tammi, living a secluded life on a farm in Rigby, Georgia, with her strict religious grandparents, or rather step-grandparents, which adds an element of them doing her a favour that is the first clue that all is not actually sweetness and light. Tammi has a lot of chores to do, must dress in the shapeless clothes her grandmother picks out and isn’t allowed to listen to modern music (it’s the 1970s). Which doesn’t exactly make her Miss Popularity at school. Tammi’s only real friends are her Aunt Minna and Uncle Orr, who each live in their own house on the farm and provide an escape. Minna is colourful and eccentric, Orr is severely mentally disabled; both are devoted to young Tammi.

The story proper begins when Tammi gets hold of a stack of steamy romance novels that she knows her grandmother will disapprove of but is eager to read. She persuades a girl at school to join her Romance Readers Book Club and soon a small group is meeting secretly every four weeks to share the illicit thrill. Tammi’s burgeoning sexuality is being stifled by real life and she desperately needs this escape, but she is terrified that it is a huge sin and may be the cause of the endless drought that is threatening her family’s livelihood.

There’s quite a lot going on in Tammi’s world, with peripheral characters having their own dramas that sometimes crash into Tammi’s life. I did find it odd that, aside from sexual matters, Tammi seemed to lack curiosity – maybe she has been too well trained in politeness and not asking questions but she seemed happy to find out what’s going on in dribs and drabs. And even when it came to sex there was a for me heartbreaking scene where she realises she doesn’t actually know what all these metaphors and allusions about passionate encounters are actually getting at. She has no idea what comes after kissing.

I definitely felt a strong sense of place in this novel. Not that I’m familiar with Georgia, but it somehow persuaded me of its authenticity of accent, terminology and people. I also felt that Orr was depicted well; his friendship with Tammi was touching and his inability to cope with having steamy romance novels read aloud to him was surprisingly sad because it marked the first division between Tammi and her favourite companion.

It’s worth pointing out that this book comes from a part of the world where going to church is all-important. Cannon uses some clever misdirection on this topic but actually faith itself is never questioned, only how to interpret the word of God. Tammi’s revolt against the strictness of her grandmother is never very extreme and she repents every tiny thing. In a way, this is actually very clever, because if Tammi had broken away from everything dramatically this would be a story about how romance novels are a corrupting influence, whereas the point of course is that these novels are a natural and badly needed escape and the only harm done is the temporary confusion that Tammi would probably have gone through anyway.

There are a lot of short “excerpts” from the romance novels in question and they really did take me back to being a teenager myself, devouring these books before I had ever even kissed a boy, daydreaming obsessively of being a character in one of those exotic locales with the clichéd dark handsome man. By the time I got my first boyfriend I’d realised those books were trash and moved on but they played their part in my “coming of age” and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

One final point on this novel – the blurb on the back was particularly poor. I know a lot of people say to always ignore it anyway and if I’m buying a book because I like the author or read about it in a review I do ignore the cover as much as I can. But when I’m just browsing unknown books, that blurb is providing useful information. Theoretically. But in this case whoever wrote the blurb got the wrong end of the stick and almost certainly hadn’t read the manuscript. There are several factual errors and it misses out some of the more interesting, serious themes. That said, I’m still glad I picked it up.

First published 2008 by Plume, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

The shock of growing up

Claudine in Paris
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

After thoroughly enjoying the first book in the Claudine series, I was glad to already have the second book waiting in my TBR. It was another wonderful, rollicking read and I’m now going to have to search out the other two.

These were the first novels written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, who was an absolutely fascinating literary figure. I visited her grave in Paris a few years ago and was moved in a way I hadn’t expected to be (especially considering that previous to this series her novels have failed to move me).

Ici repose Colette

In this volume, Claudine and her father have moved to Paris, so that he can further his studies of slugs. She discovers to her surprise that she suffers greatly from homesickness for her beloved countryside village. She also discovers, on exposure to a new male friend who is gay and an old female friend who has become a rich man’s mistress, that she is far more easily shocked than she would have expected of herself:

“Disgust, yes definitely! There I was, making myself completely sophisticated and disillusioned and shouting from the rooftops ‘Ha, ha! You can’t teach me anything. Ha, ha! I read everything! And I understand everything even though I am only seventeen!’ Precisely. And when it comes to a gentleman pinching my behind in the street or a little friend living what I’m in the habit of reading about, I’m knocked sideways…In your heart of hearts, Claudine, you’re nothing but a common everyday decent girl.”

Well, Claudine may have discovered that the big wide world isn’t as easily bluffed as her old schoolmates were, but she is still far from common or everyday. Claudine is hypersensitive enough to catch a fever when she gets anxious but she is also tomboyish enough to do exercises every morning and speak her mind almost thoughtlessly. She is still vain enough to admire herself in every window or mirror and look coquettishly at every man she sees, but is self-aware enough to know that she is silly and vain and inexperienced to boot. She catches herself feeling jealous of an old friend who is marrying a sensible, dull sort of man and presses her friend the kept woman for information about sex while all the while feeling scared and sickened by the whole business.

Most of all, Claudine is still a witty, entertaining narrator who lets you into her world with disarming honesty, beside the occasionally withheld nugget of interest. The main switch in this book is that Claudine appears to have left behind the lesbian intrigues of school, only revisiting them for the entertainment of her cousin Marcel, who is left hot under the collar by her accounts and begs for more detail. Claudine’s romantic interest now seems to be firmly aimed toward men and marriage.

For all its shocking content and its youthful, not as sophisticated as she’d like to be narrator, this book is extremely well written with a wonderful, colourful cast of characters and a clever humour that must have been a challenge to translate this deftly.

Claudine à Paris first published in 1901 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1958 by Secker and Warburg

The end of childhood

Ripening Seed
by Colette
translated by Roger Senhouse

Colette is one of those highly rated authors whose works I continue to read but fail to be bowled over by. I think I understand the attraction but I am not personally attracted.

This book is, based on my experience, a typical example. The story is simple, the writing is simple, with lucid descriptions and a lot of detail about the setting. Characters’ thoughts and feelings are voiced and yet we never truly get to know them. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the book is so short.

Vinca and Philippe’s families have holidayed together in Brittany every summer of their young lives. They have grown up together thick as thieves, under the assumption that their innocent friendship will one day turn into marriage. But this summer Vinca is 15 and Phil is 16 and suddenly teenage hormones make it hard to remain innocent. The appearance of a mysterious older woman in Phil’s life only complicates things further.

The storyline is largely predictable because, well, people are. There is a definite air of sadness about the loss of innocence; in fact I found the point to be pressed a little too hard. Maybe it’s because I was never sad to leave my childhood behind (because I was always eager to grow up, not because I had a bad childhood), but I find it hard to relate to this series of delicate, poignant moments.

Some of the language is beautiful and the story has stood the test of time pretty well, which I think is greatly helped by the seaside setting – kids still swim, rockpool, clamber over rocks and largely exist without noticing their parents.

I will continue to buy Colette’s books when I spot them in second-hand bookshops (few if any of her books are still in print in English) because they’re not bad and maybe one will touch me and get me enthusing.

First published 1923.
This translation first published 1955.

Super extra bonus review

Scott Pilgrim books 1–6
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

So these books are a lot of fun. Considering it’s mostly boy geeks who are obsessed with them I was surprised to discover that they’re all about relationships. With a bunch of kick-ass fighting and geeky extras thrown in, that is.

Volume 1 opens with Scott Pilgrim aged 23, unemployed, living with (by which I mean scrounging off) his gay best friend Wallace in a one-bed apartment (that’s literally one bed, which they share, not that it’s awkward or anything) and playing bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb that may or may not suck. Scott plays videogames all day and is still mooning over some girl he broke up with a year ago but somehow he’s like catnip to the ladies and we gradually meet a whole string of his exes.

Then, like some great karmic revenge, he meets smart, pretty, funny, mysterious Ramona Flowers. Or strictly, she starts appearing in his head and he’s already obsessed before he meets her in real life and asks her out. She says yes, with one condition: he has to fight – and defeat – her seven evil exes.

Scott seems sweet and unassuming, and also pretty gormless and very forgetful, but it turns out that fighting is the one thing he got good at in high school. Plus he’s been training hard on the videogames, so how could he not kick ass? In fact it turns out he’s better at doing that than growing up.

These books are funny, addictive and well drawn. There’s a whole array of secondary characters, most of whom are thoroughly fleshed out, believable people. Obviously some of them are just bad guys Scott has to fight.

There are some brilliant comic touches that may actually be entirely in Scott’s mind, warped as it is from playing videogames more than real life. When he defeats a bad guy – or evil ex – their body disappears and a pile of coins appears, like in an old platform game. And when he learns something valuable he gets experience points. Genius.

There’s a lot of meta referencing, which I liked, with characters saying things like “I’ll tell you in book 3”. And there’s a subspace highway that runs through Scott’s head, which is convenient.

The dialogue is at once realistic and very, very funny and, like all the best comics, background detail is used to great effect, usually comedic. The books are chock-full of quotable comedy and, despite a few big reveals, completely re-readable.

It goes without saying (almost) that I think the film of this by Edgar Wright will be brilliant and I can’t wait to see it. From the trailers it looks like the tone has been captured exactly. And it would be hard to dislike anything starring Michael Cera.

First published 2004–2010 by Oni Press in the US.
Published 2010 by Fourth Estate in the UK.

Book 1 ISBN 978-0-0073-4047-7

The other side of the fence

The Romantics
by Pankaj Mishra

This debut from Indian novelist Mishra is at once beautiful and eye-opening. It provides an insight into different cultures in India, both native and visitor, and how they work (or don’t work) together.

The story follows Samar from university to postgraduate restlessness to his first job and in many ways is the tale of his ‘coming of age’ or ‘finding peace with himself’, but resolution is not the name of the game here and uncertainty is ever-present.

Samar is a Brahmin and, like most of his caste, by the 1980s his family has little of the old money left and can just afford to keep him until he’s 21. Until then he reads ferociously and, despite his studious quietness, mixes with quite a range of people. His neighbour Miss West is a middle-aged Englishwoman and through her Samar meets a whole host of westerners who come to India for spiritual reasons that he can never quite grasp (presumably these are the ‘Romantics’ of the title).

Mishra does a good job of encapsulating his hero’s mixture of revulsion and jealousy of these people, particularly of their money, freedom and opportunities – things he will never have. Mishra gently pokes fun at these visitors and their various reasons for coming to India – from having read a certain popular book to studying alternative medicine – but also points out the similarity between their displacement, their struggle to find a life path, and Samar’s.

I’m still not sure how much of my enjoyment of this book was based in it opening up to me a world I’ve never experienced, from a viewpoint I can never experience. It’s definitely a book that made me feel guilty for wanting to travel to far-flung places to widen my horizons when, of course, a week in Pondicherry could never tell me what life is truly like there.

Samar also has Indian friends, such as fellow student Rajesh through whom he sees a glimpse of India’s rural poor, a life lesson he badly needs after comparing himself to the westerners. His friendship with Rajesh and other Indians is markedly different from the one he enjoys with Miss West and her friends, which I found very interesting. The westerners are very quick to share the minutiae of their lives and each other’s. It takes a long time for Samar to discover that their true thoughts and feelings are kept just as hidden as his own, and cut them just as badly.

The book also includes a number of passages that lovingly describe India, particularly the Himalayas, and these could be quite moving. The author clearly loves his country. But it was the east–west relationships that really made this book the fascinating read that it was. From a glance at his website, it appears that he has written a lot of essays on this theme and other issues affecting modern India, so I shall be checking those out.

Published 1999 by Picador.