I want a girl who reads
whose heart bleeds at the words of graham greene
or even heat magazine
I want a girl who reads
whose heart bleeds at the words of graham greene
or even heat magazine
I’m back! I’m blogging!! I know, I can hardly believe it myself. Sorry for the radio silence, I had a summer of weddings and hen dos and lovely holidays and actually went through a bit of a dry book phase. But I’m back in the game now and very keen to let you know about my last few reads. Thanks for sticking with me!
So first up this November, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. Ignorance confession time: before this book landed in my lap, I had never heard of American author Tan. Nor did I know that her bestseller The Joy Luck Club had been translated into 35 languages and whipped up into an Oliver Stone film. What I did know, however, was that I’m not typically a fan of sweeping historical fiction (I know, I’m a heathen) and that the blurb sounded exhausting (‘Violet’s need to understand her past’…’quest to uncover the truth’… ‘spanning fifty years’… GOD ALMIGHTY SOMEONE BRING ME A RED BULL I’M IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL).
So it was with a slightly begrudging heart that I turned page 1 of 589 and kicked off proceedings. Luckily, the well paced opening chapter threw me instantly into an intriguing world I knew nothing about. We’re catapulted into Shanghai in the early 20th century, as young Violet Minturn is growing up in one of the city’s finest and most famous courtesan houses. Her American mother Lulu (or Lucia or Lucretia, depending on who you are and where we are in the story) is a formidable Mistress of the House, brokering business deals between wealthy clients and encouraging them to strike up relationships with her Cloud Beauties, the striking and talented courtesans that live in-house.
But it’s a volatile time in China – the Emperor is kicked out and the city becomes a dangerous place for foreigners. Amidst the madness, Violet’s mum is plagued by her own secrets (the publicists weren’t lying about that ‘quest for truth’ stuff) and falls prey to some serious trickery. Suddenly Violet is alone in Shanghai and forced to become a virgin courtesan.
What comes next is, unsurprisingly, a heck of a lot of sex. There’s a whole chapter stuffed (ahem) with virgin courtesan tips, fabulously entitled “Etiquette For Beauties of the Boudoir”, as told to Violet by former Top Ten Beauty of Shanghai, Magic Gourd. There follows some advice for your grand deflowering (“gasp with pleasure, not fright”), a list of kinky client quirks (stay tuned for some cross-dressing Night Scholar scenarios) and top tips for “preparing the pudenda” (nuff said surely?). I was reading solo at Pret once and had to shift the book so my nosey neighbour didn’t think I was reading a porno. Possibly a slight exaggeration.
That said, there’s so much more to being a courtesan than using blustery days as a chance to flash your pants (an actual tip). Visitors couldn’t simply pay to have their way, there’s a whole etiquette of courting and gift-giving that should go on for months before any in-and-outing occurs. I found it fascinating how men would be prepared to woo in an almost traditional sense, despite still having their wives – yup, sometimes plural – back home.
Tan has said she ummed and ahhed a lot about how to best write her sex scenes (so many jokes, so little time). But sex aside, really the crux of the story is a big ol’ quest for identity and love. Violet struggles with her dual-nationality (we discover her Dad is Chinese) and the betrayal of her mother throughout the story, but it’s not until about we’re well over half-way through the novel that we start to hear Lulu’s side of the story. <SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT> A headstrong teenager who felt unloved by her parents, Lulu instigates an affair with an exotic Chinese friend of the family. She ends up pregnant with his child, and impulsively decides to follow him back to Shanghai. When she too finds herself abandoned, we realise just how many parallels lie between her story and Violet’s. Will they ever find each other? And will Violet ever be able to forgive her mother for an act of stupidity that changed the course of her daughter’s life? When Violet’s own daughter is taken away from her we get a strange feeling of deja vu that will echo through the remainder of the story.
I liked this book more than I thought I would. I did a fair bit of LOLing (Magic Gourd is classic) and cried a couple of times. There are some great colourful characters, plenty of adventure, and it provides a really interesting look at a time and world I knew nothing about. But something stops me shouting about it, and I’m not entirely sure I can put my figure on what that is. It may well be that I was comparing it to another book I had just read, which I LOVED and will tell you all about soon.
I guess I’d say that if epic tales are usually your thing / you like a good emotional read / you’re not a sexy-stuff prude, then this is well worth a read.
Have you read any Amy Tan? Do you think The Valley of Amazement sounds up your street? I’d love to hear from you.
If you’ve been listening to the chug chug chug of the PR train for Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First but haven’t had a chance to ride it yet (sorry not too sure where on earth the steam train analogy has come from but let’s roll with it), then I AM HERE TO HELP.
A while back I reviewed Kiss Me First and The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison for Stylist magazine’s Book Wars feature. I liked The Silent Wife’s Gone-Girl-esque marriage war, but Kiss Me First definitely made the biggest impression on me, and the subject matter feels much more original and current. It follows Leila, a lonely tech geek who turns to the internet for companionship after the death of her terminally ill mother. She stumbles across an online thought forum and ends up embroiled in a project to help Tess, a glamorous but unstable woman, end her life without upsetting her friends and family. The plan? To keep in touch with Tess’ nearest and dearest via Facebook, email, and pre-recorded voicemails.
As Leila spends time with Tess, studying her every ‘x’ in every email and every LIKE-inducing comment on Facebook, it made me think of the sheer amount of personal information we’re all buffeting out into cyberspace every day. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series contained an episode where the bereaved could ‘connect’ with their dead loved ones via an instant messager and phone service that trawled through the deceased’s emails, tweets and phone calls to perfectly recreate their ‘voice’ and persona. With more and more networks and services cataloguing over every move and thought (this blog included), if you start thinking about it too much you can’t help put get a bit Spiderman about the whole thing (‘with great power comes great responsibilityyyy’).
As Leila starts to blur her own identity with Tess’, the reader is left wondering where on earth her twisted story will end up. I’ll admit that I would have liked a bit of a darker ending, but I LOVED the quietly sociopathic narrator. Not sure what that says about me…
So if you would like to win a lovely big hardback copy of Kiss Me First and have the chance to read about the mentalness of social networking protocol firsthand, all you have to do is tweet “I’ve just entered a competition to win #kissmefirst on https://proseandconsbookclub.wordpress.com” (or something to that effect) @frillseeking and leave a post below. A randomly selected winner will be chosen early next week. Good Luck!
PS UK addresses only please!
This week I reviewed two books about China for Stylist magazine’s Book Wars feature: Bend, Not Break, a memoir written by Ping Fu, and Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. Eastern promise or new world nightmare? Billionaire’s a good ‘un but Ping Fu’s true story of overcoming terrifying hardship to reach the dizzying heights of success got my thumbs up. Enjoy.
I do love a good book marketing campaign, and anyone who has moved an inch in London over the last couple of months will have noticed the big, striking black and orange tube posters for Gone Girl. THRILLER OF THE YEAR! they scream. But is the hype justified?
Last year, I was asked to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for Stylist magazine’s Book Wars feature (where 2 new releases are pitched against each other in a word-mashing fight to the death). I’d heard it described it 2012’s ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ – but then just about every psychological thriller I’d received in the last year had been described in exactly the same way, so I was a wee bit unconvinced to say the last. I’m all up for a bit of Sophie Hannah-ish mind-messing, and I did really love Before I Go To Sleep, but I think it’s fair to say I didn’t have mega high hopes when I turned the first page of Gone Girl.
A few hundred pages later, I had ripped through the book and was screeching an incredulous ‘NO F*CKING WAY’ at the ending. Mostly in a good way. Yes, some of the scenarios are ridiculous, the motives slightly questionable and I think I hated just about every character at some stage. But the plot surprises are just brilliant. You think you’ve guessed them, your guesses are confirmed, and then WHOOSH – you’re walloped in the kisser and left seeing stars. My inner monologue was a bit like this:
Ohhh, I wonder if XYZ will happen??
XYZ is SO going to happen.
XYZ HAPPENED!! So obvious. Am mega genius who should write psycho thrillers.
Hang on a minute..
Seriously, this plot does more twisting and shaking than a 1960s Beatle.
So yes. Here’s the review I did for Stylist, comparing it to Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (which I reviewed for my blog here). And if this doesn’t convince you, check out these reviews by Savidge Reads and Annabel’s House of Books.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the only books released in 2012 were tales of whips, chains and meringue-dancing inner goddesses. But 2012 has also been a massive year for the psychological thriller, of which Gone Girl and Dare Me are undoubtedly two of the finest. The latter, a razor-sharp portrayal of the chilling intensity of adolescence, is brilliantly acidic, its cheerleader protagonists hair-pulling their way through the story like terrifying, turbocharged Mean Girls.
But for plot ingenuity, it’s Gone Girl that took the crown for me.
This is a story that starts out simply – a man reports his wife missing when he discovers their empty house with signs of a struggle. Nick is a good man in a terrible situation. But suddenly you’re not so sure – why the lies? Why the secret second phone? Suddenly Nick’s offhand statement, “I’m a big fan of the lie of omission,” starts echoing in your ears. Nick’s story is interspersed with entries from Amy’s diary that paint a very different picture of the man she married. Who do you trust?
I’m desperately trying not to give too much away here, as the effect of Gone Girl is heavily dependent on its capacity to surprise. Flynn relentlessly plays with her reader, dangling hints and hushing up truths through two narrators who become more and more unreliable as the corkscrew plot unravels.
But what lurks in the shadows of every page is that chilling question: how well do we really know the people we love? As the plot ricochets towards its seriously chilling climax – and yet another twist – Nick and Amy’s once perfect love story becomes a macabre tale of war, with a shocker of an ending that made me instantly want to force everyone I know to read it.
If, like me, you like your stories a little bitter and twisted, both Gone Girl and Dare Me should rocket up your reading list. But in terms of A-list appeal, Gone Girl has the edge. With fans including SJP, India Knight and Marian Keyes, the book has also attracted Hollywood; Reese Witherspoon’s production company has snapped up the film rights.
Read it now and prepare your smug ‘the book is so much better than the film’ lines in advance.
So what was your verdict? Overhyped nonsense or one of the best thrillers of 2012?