An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Romantic by Kate Holden

The Romantic by Kate Holden surely qualifies as one of the least romantic books I have ever read. There are certainly large amounts of sex, but it is accompanied by the kind of raw emotional revelation that makes you want to avert your eyes. It’s been said “Writing is easy; all you do is open a vein and bleed onto the page” (who said it does not appear to be quite clear) and Kate Holden is clearly a writer who takes this dictum to heart.
The Romantic is the long awaited follow-up to Holden’s memoir of her descent into drug addiction and prostitution, In My Skin. Now clean, this new book chronicles her attempts to rediscover some sense of normality in her relationships by spending time in Italy. In the process, she seems to fall into bed with a vast number of men. She describes sex several times as a “debased currency” – although she no longer trades it for money, she is still trying to earn affection, security and love.
It would be easy for The Romantic to become self-indulgent and some readers may believe that it does. My own view is that it is saved by Holden’s unflinching honesty, which was also a feature of In My Skin. At times you feel that you want to reach into the book and shake her, as she allows herself to be manipulated by yet another unreliable man, but you never lose sympathy with her. It’s the sense that she is trying to move on but keeps falling back into bad habits that becomes frustrating after a while.
The book is elegantly written, in the third person. It’s an interesting choice that initially surprised me, expecting as I was a memoir. But the book is very much an internal examination of the writer’s mind and perhaps was only possible through such a distancing mechanism. Or perhaps Holden felt self-conscious describing sex in such detail using the first person. Either way, it’s easy at times to forget you are reading a memoir, albeit a lightly fictionalised one.
I found the book somewhat depressing, although it ended on an upbeat note. If any readers have delusions left about the so-called “glamour” of prostitution, this book will destroy them utterly. Seeing how it affected Holden and the way that she interacts with people, particularly men, made me very sad. As she gropes her way back towards some sense of ‘normality’ it is also disheartening to see the way men reacted when she told them about her past. After years of saying yes over and over again she found it almost impossible to say no, and it seems that there were plenty of people willing to take advantage of that.
Ultimately, In My Skin  is a book about the redemption of Holden’s body, while The Romantic is about the rebuilding of her shattered psyche. For all that, it’s a different book and readers who enjoyed the first will not necessarily enjoy the second. A relatively high tolerance for introspection and self-analysis is required, as well as a tolerance for high levels of sexual content. For all that, those with an interest in human relationships will relate to Holden’s honesty in laying her emotional life open on the page. I look forward with interest to whatever she writes next.

Friday, November 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

When I picked up The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating I vaguely remembered reading a review at some point. I expected one of those books that purport to be about one thing, while really being about something else, on a deep metaphorical level. Surely the book couldn’t just be about snails – could it?
I was wrong – this book is purely and simply about snails. It is about one snail in particular, who lived in a pot of violets and then in a glass terrarium by Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s bed. She was suffering through a strange and serious illness, but developed an interest in snail biology, literature and history, and her research forms the core of the book. If you have ever wondered about the reproductive habits of the snail, this is the book for you.
Tova Bailey’s illness plays a peripheral role. It is perhaps too peripheral, for those hoping for a Hollywood redemption-through-snail-watching ending. I found myself hoping for Tova Bailey’s recovery, but this is a book that avoids the easy answers. In an elegant and restrained postscript, Tova Bailey gives some more background to her situation, but as I said this book really is all about the snail. That’s not to say there is no self-reflection, but it is done sparingly. A book such as this could easily become self-indulgent and it is to Tova Bailey’s great credit that she steers the opposite course. It is left to the reader to ponder, after closing the book, the questions it raises.
In some ways, the book itself resembles the snail that it features. The attraction of the story is not immediately obvious, and some may dismiss it out of hand. But slowing down and spending some time to try to understand the book, at its snails pace, has unexpected rewards. It won’t be for everyone but this quiet meditation will appeal to many who appreciate thoughtful and elegant writing.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: 1222 by Anne Holt

Every so often you come across a book that is so astoundingly, brilliantly good, you want to shout it from the rooftops. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog. Still, while I’ve reviewed many books I enjoyed, there have been  very few that have made me want to rush out and buy copies for all my friends so that they don’t miss out.
1222 by Anne Holt is the latest book I’ve fallen in love with, and it’s fair to say I’m head over heels. So this review may resemble the gushing praise of a new lover rather than a more rational dissection, but what’s life without a mad crush here and there?
The set-up grabs your attention from the start. A train carrying  a mysterious locked carriage derails high in the Norwegian mountains. The passengers are rescued and taken to an isolated mountain hotel. As the storm rages outside, and snowdrifts build up against the walls, one of the passengers is murdered. With no contact with the outside world, it falls to a reluctant Hanne Wilhelmson, former police detective, to find the killer.
Hanne is a character so three-dimensional  it’s hard to believe she’s fictional. Paralysed from the waist down, she shies away from human contact and has built defences thicker than the snow outside. Her instincts are to avoid becoming involved, but as she grows to know her fellow passengers her isolation becomes harder to maintain.
Setting and characters are vividly painted, and the plot is beyond gripping. This is a book to keep you awake long past your bedtime. It’s in the best tradition of the Agatha Christie whodunit, but with the pace of Dan Brown and the topicality of the best thriller writers. In the end I can only say in this review what I have been saying to friends, family and colleagues – you have to read this book.