Friday, June 27, 2008

All romance is rape-lite!!!!

I just read a great article about Lilian Peake's Promise at Midnight, a skewering of the old-style M&Bs that used to circulate in the late 1970s (just around the time I started reading them - no wonder I never trusted boys!) (Link:

And then in the comments, I found that someone called ronaldpagan said:

"All romance novels have disturbing rape-lite scenes, but this is one of the worst I've ever seen."

You what!!! Um, ronaldp, read any good books recently? Umm, like Pride and Prejudice, uber-romance, or Frederica by Georgette Heyer, or Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson, or Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie or or or or....

Anyway, I'm still picking my jaw up off the floor after that sweeping and ggrrrrrr outrageously ignorant and dumbass statement.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Summertime and the reading is easy

Before I head for bed with another good book, just a couple of comments on Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase, which has created a mini-furore in RomanceLand because the heroine is a colourful courtesan at the top of The Game in Europe. Nope, she is not a virgin. Yup, she has had sex with men other than the hero and enjoyed it. Nope, she is not repentant. Yup, she is different from other heroines.

This issue is a real hot button for a lot of readers. On one or two boards, people's comments have been very condemning, although those come from people who haven't read the book and have no intention of reading the book because the heroine is unchaste.

That doesn't bother me. It's a slight, frothy book, and the only thing that interfered with my enjoyment is the plot which is by and large missing. It's quite screwball/zany stuff - e.g. hero and heroine dunk themselvs in a Venetian canal for no apparent rational reason. On the other hand, I didn't find this a wallbanger. I liked the hero. But it all seemed very thin to me. Which is a rather more serious issue than whether the heroine has had sex with more than one man.

A better book altogether was one passed to me by a friend who said, "It's a very good beach read", but I glommed it up in a gulp or two before getting anywhere near a beach. It was called Water For Elephants, and has been very successful in the US but seems scarcely to have caused a ripple in this neck of the woods. It is the story of a young man, Jacob, who is propelled by personal catastrophe into the world of a very ropey circus in the early 1930s, touring the US by train. There is plenty of plot in this one, lots of things happen, and it rollicks along at a fair old pace. It was an extremely easy, engaging read, especially after the Murakami. But as time passes, I know that the Murakami will stay with me - I ended up talking about it today to a student, where Water for Elephants will go down on a list of suitable summer reads for the 14+ book list - the main feature is the unusual setting which is full of opportunities for the introduction of weird and wonderful characters - and then be forgotten. Except that it has been optioned to be made into a movie, and it should be a good movie if they get the right cast. Big If.

In the meantime, have fallen in love with a new band: Fleet Foxes are a weird combination of let's see, Kings of Leon meet Beachboys with Arcade Firey-Midlake type vibe. Lots of harmonies, mandolins and walls of sound. Yumm. Not quite knocking Vampire Weekend off their perch as number one on the iPod, but v. infectious. First time I listened through, I thought, hmmm, then the songs earwormed me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

3 Cups of Tea and Murakami

Hallellujah! I have finished marking the last exams, writing the last reports. I have oral exams looming and conseils de classe, but really, the school year is over.

So now it is time to do that reading thing. Finished two books recently, neither fully satisfying. The first was Three Cups of Tea, the story of Greg Mortenson, a nurse and mountaineer who has in the past 15 years built 60 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and it seems to me, done more to improve Central Asian-American relations on his own initiative of bottom-up, community based development projects than billions of dollars handed over by the CIA and others to crazy-ass warlords. And it has taken him around $12,000 per school, with now, increasing sums for maintenance and staff salaries needed to support the operation. The deal is, a community has to ask for a school, they have to agree that compulsory attendance for all primary age kids in the area includes the girls, and local people help build the school and operate it. Mortenson's Central Asia Institute seems to have spent a few million dollars over the past 15 years, probably not even $5m. Chicken feed. But the villages where schools have been built have seen child mortality drop and skills increase, with women's centres opening up where women can earn money. Gently, quietly and calmly, in remote villages in the Karakorum, community based development is making a genuine improvement to people's lives and positioning children with no opportunities to get scholarships and make the most of themselves.

The downside of reading the book is that it was written by an American journalist, David Oliver Relin, who is unfortunately a master of the nauseating adulatory style that is the common currency of US Sunday magazines. There isn't enough practical detail of the operation of the schools, and the book essentially covers the early period of building the first couple of schools, rather than the more recent expansion of schools, which would also have been interesting. So, although Mortenson's story is fascinating and important, the book is marred by Relin's oleaginous maunderings.

Second recent book is Haruki Murakami's Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I have friends whose taste and judgement I trust who rave about Murakami, but H-bW&TEOFW didn't do it for me. I will try Norwegian Wood in a while, but I need a rest from the weird stuff. It is an interesting book in that it raises issues of the nature of the mind and consciousness but there was something about reading it that made me feel detached. It's cleverly constructed, and I suspect that Murakami was influenced by Calvino and went on to influence David Mitchell, but my current reading tastes are not for the 'clever-clever', so perhaps that was the major issue. I'm looking for heroes I can love, stories I can be swept up by and interesting places to visit. Nameless individuals identified only by their job function, choppy narratives and Tokyo just didn't fit the bill this time.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why let the Telegraph get to me???

I've just renewed my membership of Amnesty International, something I've been meaning to do for a while, but in the hustle and rush of moving countries and houses and changing jobs and raising boys and writing books and sitting exams and I know, excuses excuses. But various things have reminded me that I used to be a member and that I should rejoin and this time get really active.

Number one - the Radio 4 review of the papers mentioning the Daily Telegraph's demand that we withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights so that we can deport people back to countries where they are certain to face 'inhumane and degrading treatment' (link:

Yes, I know, it's Abu Qatada, a pretty revolting specimen. But... (I can hear my father-in-law saying even as I write, imagine that your two sons are killed or injured in a terrorist attack because Abu Qatada roams the streets, your principles will provide cold comfort) but....

While I loathe, detest and abhor fundamentalists of all denominations, I do not wish my native country, of which I have been an occasionally proud but mostly sceptical citizen, to be one which tacitly endorses torture. Amnesty is busy fighting 42-day detention - that the UK should voluntarily wish to become the country with the longest period of detention without charge is sickening. It is also busy campaigning against the barbaric and plain irrational treatment of asylum seekers by the Home Office or UK Border Council or whoever it is that compounds the cruelty already visited on the people who come to us for protection and sanctuary.

Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident etc, wrote a moving piece in last weekend's Observer (link:
about asylum seekers, and that too enraged and infuriated me into taking up with Amnesty again.

It seems a small and trivial action - but it is a start, because one thing I've learned is that until we all, every last one of us, abide by the Human Rights conventions that require us to treat our fellow human beings with dignity and respect, we will continue to kill and maim and destroy one another. And yes, I do know that HR conventions are contradictory, opaque and culturally dubious instruments. But they are currently the only thing we have to hold back the barbarian that rides towards the gate in each of our souls.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Big Mis...Spoilers ahoy!

I recently finished teaching Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a book I first read when it came out and loved. It's only recently that I've become anal enough to keep a spreadsheet of the books I've finished reading, so I don't know what else I was into around 1993/94, but I remember telling the then boyfriend (yes, reader, I married him) "YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!!" and feeling that for the first time in months - nay, years - I'd come across a book with a story and wonderful characters instead of post-modern tricksiness that left me feeling weary and toyed with like yesterday's reheated leftovers.

Reading it this time, and trying to convey its possibilities to a gang of sixteen/seventeen year olds, was very different. For some, it was the longest book they'd ever read for starters. And we ran out of time, so instead of going for detailed student-centred analysis, I did quite a lot of the thinking and note-making and speaking for them. Which made me think a good deal.

When I first read the book, I was so entranced by the first 350 pages that I forgave the author for the last 50 or so pages. This time, I was frank and open with my students. De Bernières played a cheap and stupid trick in the book, a trick that those of us who read and write romances spot and deride and do our best to avoid in our own books. And the trick is The Big Mis - or Misunderstanding, in which two people who are clearly bananas about each other and right for other are wilfully kept apart by the writer using a fake conflict.

Just a quick plot run down to explain the Big Mis: our heroine, Pelagia, is a Greek girl living on the island of Cephallonia. Our hero, Antonio Corelli, is a captain in the occupying Italian army, billeted in Pelagia's home, the house of Dr Iannis. Over the months of the Italian occupation, Pelagia and Corelli fall in love - it is a tender and chaste love. With the collapse of Mussolini's regime, the Italians are left at the mercy of the German occupying forces on the island and most are massacred or imprisoned. Corelli is miraculously saved, although grievously wounded, and Pelagia and her father save his life, shelter him and then arrange for him to travel back to Italy.

Corelli is meant to return to the island and reclaim his lost love. But when he fails to do so, Pelagia believes that he is dead, and imagines that she sees his ghost. At the very end of the book, Corelli does return - he reveals that he did come back in 1946, but he saw Pelagia holding and caressing a baby, so imagining that she was happily married, he decided not to make contact. He continues returning to the island for an annual pilgrimage to the grave of the man who saved his life, but until he is in his 70s, he never makes contact with the woman who was supposed to be the love of his life. The reader knows that the baby was actually an orphan dumped on Pelagia's doorstep, and that she has remained faithful to Corelli - unmarried and childless apart from her adopted daughter, Antonia.

What's my problem with all this?

The first major problem is that De Bernières establishes not only Corelli's relationship with Pelagia, but perhaps even more critically, with her father and the islanders and the island itself as life-altering and passionate. He sympathises fully enough with the Cephallonians before the massacre: after the massacre (which is one of the most heart-rending passages I've ever read in any book ever, and the reason that I still think CCM is a magnificent book), he is utterly dependent on them. They save his life in so many ways, and it is not simply a debt, but an absorption into their lives that makes him one with the islanders. When Iannis uses the strings from Corelli's mandolin to make him whole again, Corelli is bound to the island itself. The character he seems to be could never have come back to Cephallonia without making contact with the people who saved his life - not just Pelagia, but Iannis and Velisarios, the strong man
whose massiveness and undefatigable nature are a continuous motif through the book.

Besides which, his most treasured possession is his mandolin. Along with Pelagia, he deserts his mandolin.

So the Corelli who turns his back on Pelagia and Cephallonia and does not just walk down the hill and chuck the baby under the chin before saying, "And whose baby are you looking after, my beloved Pelagia?" is just not the same Corelli that not only Pelagia, but Carlo, Iannis, and the reader fell in love with.

This is why we readers hate the Big Mis, and it is why all writers should do their best to avoid it. However marvellously a writer has done his or her work in creating character and theme, once the Big Mis is deployed, one or more key characters will lose their internal consistency. This is the reason that the Big Mis is not just a misunderstanding, but a grievous mistake on the part of a writer, because the one mega-crime a writer can commit is to create a character with whom we ourselves can fall in love and then make them behave inconsistently or out of character.

I'm not asking for Pelagia and Corelli to run into one another's arms and head off into the sunset - I'd accept one or both being killed. A love so pure need not survive. But De Bernières uses the Big Mis to go rambling over a mish-mash of events and minor developments that imbalance the book and mean that instead of fireworking, the ending just fizzles...

So, while I'd urge you to read CCM, because the main 5/6ths of it are magnificent, I'd give up either when Pelagia says farewell to Corelli on the beach, or after Drosoula's magnficent cursing of her own son, Mandras (it's a long story, you have to read the book), both of which are much more fitting, although perhaps inconclusive endings to the novel.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Writing again...

Well, it's some way short of the weeks when I could hit 4,000 words, but last week I managed 873 words. I'm going to try to do better this week, but given that I have exams to mark, notes on Captain Corelli's Mandolin to finish, the Guillemots to see, 87 children to take to London and back, a girls' night out at Sex and the City etc etc, I don't see myself getting much beyond another 873 words, but who knows.

At the moment, new people keep popping up in this book, apart from which, it is such a long time since I did any serious work on it, I've forgotten pretty much who did what and said what in chs 1-4. Sooo, I'm going to print it all out and do a proper re-read and a proper plot outline and then perhaps things will fall into place.

Anyway, I'm writing again, my characters have some place to go now instead of lurking in my head and I'm happy.