Category Archives: Angela Carter

Rounding Up The Reviews #4; A Bumper Crop of Book Reviews Before 2014 Ends

So in an effort to combat my blog OCD panic, I like to have reviewed everything I have read in a year and start a year a fresh, and a backlog of reviews I thought I’d do a round up of some of the books – there are more to come – that I have read and wanted to share thoughts with you about – be they good, bad or indifferent. So no waffle, just some quick(ish) book reviews today…

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1938 (2000 edition), fiction, 240 pages, bought by my good self

I like Evelyn Waugh a lot and had heard marvellous things about Scoop from all the right people, so it had been on my ‘to read at some point’ list for quite some time when Rob chose it as a classic choice for Hear Read This! a few months ago. Sadly I really, really, really didn’t like it. The tale is one of mistaken identity as William Boot, who usually writes about things such as badgers and crested grebes, is sent in place of another journalist named Boot to the African state of Ishmaelia where he is to report for The Beat on a ‘very promising little war’.

By rights this book should have been completely up my street, a satire on the industry that I worked for (and hasn’t changed) for quite some time by an author I loved. I just found it deeply dated, rather boring, nothing new and actually a little bit (to put it mildly, I hate the excuse ‘of it’s time’) racist frankly. There were a few moments that I almost enjoyed but generally I was bored and couldn’t wait for it to be over. You can hear my thoughts along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1984 (1998 edition), fiction, 368 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

I have an interesting relationship with Carter’s writing, I either think it is utterly magical and wonderful or I just think it is rather bonkers verging on silly. Sophie Fevvers is famous around the world for supposedly being either part swan, with her amazing wings, or an utter fraud. Jack Waltzer, journalist, goes to interview her and find out not realising he is about to follow Sophie on quite the journey between nineteenth-century London, St Petersberg and Siberia. I found Nights at the Circus (again another book I have been meaning to read for ages and then my old book group chose it) to be a mixture of the two the whole way through, a romp I enjoyed yet occasionally didn’t get or felt went a bit too far magically and plot wise – what was Carter on?

Overall I enjoyed it immensely for its camp bonkers moments and gothic turns and eventually succumbed to its madness. Yet having finished it, I realised I didn’t have that much to say about it, I just enjoyed it overall which makes it sound more of a damp squib than I mean it to. I felt it should be a collection of short stories about Sophie rather than an adventure with her, if that makes sense? I think I wanted something like her fairy tales and didn’t get it; maybe I need to read it again?

Wind Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1939 (2000 edition), memoir, 144 pages, borrowed from the library

Like me, you may not know Saint-Exupery for anything other than The Little Prince and not for his stories, both fiction and none, of pilots and airborne adventures. Wind Sand and Stars is a nonfiction set of accounts of some of his flights from when he started in 1926 until and just passed the time in 1936 when he crashed in the desert and somehow survived. I have to say the idea of a book about planes excites me about as much, well maybe a bit more, as a book about boats BUT having loved Julian Barnes Levels of Life and its tales of ballooning and grief I was up for something new.

On one level, pun not intended, Wind Sand and Stars is a tale of one man and his first exciting, and often death defying, trips into the air. Now I don’t like flying but I could completely understand, through his writing, how Antoine became addicted. The descriptions of the freedom and the awe it gives is rather contagious. I also found the story of the crash to be a genuinely terrifying then thrilling reading experience. Yes, there’s a but coming. The problem with the book is that it takes on this almost meta meets philosophical tone which becomes rather preachy/smug and a bit annoying, so apart from the beginning and the drama I found the book a bit ‘meh’. I wanted to like it more, honest. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman

Faber & Faber, paperback, 1975 (2014 edition), short stories, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I received all of Aickman’s reissued collections unsolicited from Faber & Faber earlier in the year and thought ‘ooh these sound weird and wonderful’ and so thought they would be interesting to bring to the table for a classic choice on Hear Read This! (I know most of the books we do on there end up in round up review posts) as something different. As you will see in the next week or so 2014 has been the year of rediscovering the short story for me and so it ticked that box too being a collection of self proclaimed ‘strange stories’.

Well strange indeed they are but almost too strange. I like a ghost story, a horror story, urban legend, twisted fairy tale or just piece of bizarreness if it has a point/plot/thrill to it. All Aickman’s tales in this collection rather let me down, even the ones I rather loved like the almost-but-not-quite brilliant The Hospice, because the endings all let them down. Sadly in actuality sometimes the bonkers premise/middle (The Real Road to the Church, Niemandswasser, The Clockwatcher) just didn’t make sense and lacked punch. I felt like Aickman wanted to always be more clever, tricksy or just weird than the reader but in a way that made him feel better and doesn’t actually do anything for the reader. Each tale left me feeling cheated. Gav said this is the weird genre, I think maybe it is just not the genre for me. Glad I can say I have read them, unsure if I will read anymore unless one of you convinces me. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Poisoning Angel – Jean Teule

Gallic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I love Jean Teule’s writing and so chose The Poisoning Angel for Hear Read This! as I thought a darkly funny book in translation would be something different. Like the brilliant, but very dark and gory Eat Him If You Like, this is based on a true story – the case of Helene Jegado who became one of the most notorious prisoners of her time and indeed in French history, we follow her journey from the time she poisons her mother…

Unlike Rob, Kate and Gavin, I really enjoyed this book. I laughed the whole way through, which I think you are meant to do, as Helene just wanders around the countryside for a few decades killing people off, not being caught by the police and no one thinking the better or inviting her in. That isn’t a complete spoiler, you know that from the blurb. There isn’t masses more to say about the book other than give it a whirl! You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Hypnotist – Lars Kepler

Blue Door Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 624 pages, from my own personal TBR

I read this while I was off in the authors; there are actually two of them, homeland of Sweden between two of the Camilla Lackberg novels – I truly was on a cold crime binge. It is a hard book to explain so I am stealing the blurb “Detective Inspector Joona Linna is faced with a boy who witnessed the gruesome murder of his family. He’s suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and is comatose with shock. Linna’s running out of time. The killer’s on the run and, seemingly, there are no clues. Desperate for information, Linna enlists disgraced specialist Dr Erik Maria Bark, a hypnotist who vowed never to practice again. As the hypnosis begins, a long and terrifying chain of events unfurls with reverberations far beyond Linna’s case.” This sounded just my kind of thing.

Now it is quite a doorstopper but as it started I was racing through the book. A creepy child, a scary serial killer, some hypnotism what wasn’t to love? Then I started to get, not bored exactly, a little jaded with it. You see I love a twisty book like Gone Girl or the even better (seriously) Alex and this felt like one of those initially, in fact more like Alex as it’s really quite nasty. Then the twists started to get too much, I started to get confused and lose belief in the story as I went on. I think the best crime authors have the generosity to make the reader feel clever and twist them at just the right times whilst spinning a true spiders web, this began to feel a bit like the authors were being too clever – Aickman syndrome, see above. It was a page turner, it was clever, it was twisty… It just didn’t quite get me along for the whole whirlwind ride.

Orfeo – Richard Powers

Atlantic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have left my thoughts on this one till last as it is the only book in this selection I didn’t finish and actually threw at a wall. I admit it started off very, very well. I liked the idea of a lonely composer calling the police when his dog dies, them discovering his home made science lab and thinking he might be a terrorist. A bit farfetched maybe, but fun. Then the writing bowled me over, I have never seen music written about so brilliantly.

The notes float and rise. They turn speech as pointless as a radio ventriloquist. Light and darkness splash over Peter at each chord change, thrill with no middleman. The pitches topple forward; they fall beat by beat into their followers, obeying an inner logic, dark and beautiful.
Another milky, troubled chord twists the boy’s belly. Several promising paths lead forward into unknown notes. But of all possible branches, the melody goes strange. One surprise leap prickles Peter’s skin. Welts bloom on his forearms. His tiny manhood stiffens with inchoate desire.
The drunken angel band sets out on a harder song. These new chords are like the woods on the hill near Peter’s grandmother’s, where his father once took them sledding. Step by step the singers stumble forward in a thicket of tangled harmonies.

So why did I throw it at the wall? Two reasons. Firstly, the writing about music is incredible… the first, second and even possibly the third time. Powers soon becomes a one trick pony as he carts this trick out over and over and over, there is almost a lyrical comparative sentence in every paragraph at one point. Clever becomes too clever and smug a theme with some of this selection of books! Secondly, remember I mentioned the farcical element, again went too far and made the story of Peter’s past seem all at odds with itself and slightly clichéd and done before. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

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So there we are the last round up of the year, well if you exclude a small catch up of books I don’t want to spoil which I will post in the next week or so! Have you read any of these books? If so what did you think of them? Would you recommend any other books by these authors?

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Filed under Angela Carter, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Atlantic Books, Blue Door Books, Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh, Faber & Faber, Gallic Books, Lars Kepler, Penguin Classics, Review, Richard Powers, Robert Aickman, Rounding Up The Reviews, Vintage Classics

The Passion of New Eve – Angela Carter

I am sure you will have all heard of and popped by and seen all the posts surrounding ‘Virago Reading Week’ which the lovely Rachel of Book Snob and Carolyn of A Few Of My Favourite Things have organised. Initially I wanted to participate, then didn’t think that I could as I have lots of health stuff going on, then I thought hang on I can combine the two and choose a Virago classic I have been meaning to read while I have lots of time in waiting rooms and the like. ‘The Passion of New Eve’ by Angela Carter was the book I plumped for and I can’t lie it was all because of the alluring cover my edition has (which was a reprint in 1982 – the year I was born). I have to say the cover certainly reflects just how trippy and unusual a book this is.

‘The Passion of New Eve’ starts as it means to go on with the rather bizarre opening sentence ‘The last night I spent in London, I took some girl or other to the movies and, through her mediation, I paid you a little tribute of spermatozoa, Tristessa.’ This is not going to be any ordinary tale and indeed it isn’t. We first meet Evelyn he has taken a girl to the cinema and then lets her perform fellatio on him whilst he watches his all time favourite actress on screen.  Suddenly we skip to his arrival in New York a few weeks later, but this is not the New York we know of. It’s a dystopian version of The Big Apple where giant rats and secular groups based on gender, sexuality and race run the streets.

After falling for Leilah, a nightclub dancer, he soon gets her pregnant and sort of tires and the darkness of the city and runs away to the desert where he is captured by a female tribe living in the underworld city of Beulah and, before you think I am giving much too much away, this is where the biggest change of Evelyn’s life awaits him. I could go on and there is so much to talk about that follows and how I felt about it all but really you need to try, if you are brave enough, to read this book yourself for the experience as well as the story.

‘The Passion of New Eve’ is quite unlike anything I have ever read and certainly nothing like I was expecting from reading some of Angela Carter’s previous work. It’s a dark, uncomfortable and sometimes brutal and graphic look at sexuality and gender and what Carter feels defines them and how they can be used to manipulate and hurt rather than in any positive way – though there is a weird sense of hope in the book somewhere deep down which you get flickers of now and again.

This isn’t just some big feminism book where all the men are evil, Carter is far too clever to paint it as black and white and so in characters like ‘Mother’ (who rules Beulah) she creates one of the most heartless and monstrous villainesses I think I have come across in modern fiction. It’s a book that I found compelled me, baffled me, shock and appalled me all at once. Even when I really wanted to put the book down, occasionally just for a rest from some of the descriptions, I remained strangely mesmerised. Its not going to be one of my all time favourite books but its certainly not one that I will forget in a hurry. 7/10.

This is a book I had bought a few years ago in the lovely edition shown for a mere 25p! You can’t go wrong with that and if you see any more of these like in the image above (which Thomas made) just grab them, these oldies are as beautiful on the inside as out!

I’m really pleased that ‘Virago Reading Week’ reminded me of all the lovely battered green editions I have (I simply cant resist them in second hand shops even if I have never heard of the book or author) and lead me to this novel, so a big thanks to Rachel and Carolyn – and do pop and see their round up posts where you can find some reading gems everyone else has been reading.

I’m not sure that Angela Carter will become one of my all time favourite authors just yet, and I might need quite a bit of space to let my feelings subside on this book before I try her again, but she’s certainly an author I need to read more of. Any pointers where to head next?

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Filed under Angela Carter, Review, Virago Books

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

I find there are some authors that people recommend to you again and again, you say you will get around to reading them yet take forever to do so and then when you do read them realise you might have been missing out on a marvellous author for quite some time. Novel Insights has been telling me for ages and ages I should read Angela Carter but it took Claire of Paperback Reader making April her Angela Carter month for me to finally get started on any of her work. I opted for ‘The Bloody Chamber’ a collection of Angela Carter’s magical short stories. Yet as you may notice it’s taken me almost two months, as I started at the end of April, to get through them. Not because they were hard work but because I wanted to savour the experience.

I find writing about a collection of stories much more difficult than writing about a book. You don’t want to give away the plot of each tale, especially as some can be as short as two pages, as why would anyone read them afterwards? You also don’t want to sound vague and have people not go out and read them because they have no idea what they entail. So I think the best way of initially summarising ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is to call Carters collection an unusual retelling of fairytales we all know and love in a very original and slightly salacious way.

Tales we know and love from our childhood such as Beauty and the Beast, Puss-in-Boots and Red Riding Hood get a modern and yet utterly magical makeover. Take for example the title story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (I won’t give away which fairytale its based on though some of you could guess) which has a virgin bride marrying a much older man and leaving her widowed mother to live in a mighty French castle. For the first few pages you think it’s a tale of old with horse drawn carriages and turrets until our heroine gives her mum a call and weeps over golden dolphin taps. Or in another tale where we see Beauty whizzing from the beasts in a taxi to London. Yet Carter cleverly gives the modern world a surreal and magical feel that makes it all work and also makes it a very original retelling, if you can have such a thing.  

The reason the word ‘salacious’ springs to mind with the collection is that it’s a very sensual and often sexual world that Carter creates, there are lots of wedding nights and loss of innocence in fairy tales and Carter brings all this to the fore with much deflowering along the way. I don’t know if it’s just in these tales Carter does this or if all her work has an underlying sensuousness? In fact one of my least favourite fairy tales ‘Puss-in-Boots’ became one of my favourites in this collection because it was such a wonderful romp. Whilst these tales are in quite a dark realm they all have humour in them somewhere. Her prose is colourful, entertaining, and taught. I had a sense that as she writes each word needs to be there you never feel there is excessive description, she paints something vividly but leaves the reader with her ideas to work upon themselves.

I wondered if some where Angela Carters original ideas too as I didn’t recognise some of the tales in the collection, mind you I only heard of and read Bluebeard last year so I am not a fairy tale aficionado. Though this collection makes me want to become one.  If I had one minor quibble with the book is the order in which the stories run, those with a ‘beast in them being popped next to one an other and all the tales of wolves of all varieties being popped together at the back means they merge into one slightly. Mind you if you are reading one every couple of days then that’s not going to matter is it and I found them the most enjoyable bedtime tales. 10/10

I really enjoyed this and am now wondering which other authors have had a crack at retelling the great fairytales? I also wonder where I should turn with Carter next as I do want to read much more. Should I go for another short story collection? Maybe try more of her fairytales? Or go for a novel… but which one? Who else has read her and what would you recommend?

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

The Breaking Point & Other Stories – Daphne Du Maurier (there is a darkness and humour that I think makes these authors great companions to be read together and this collection features some of Daphne’s darker tales)

Singling Out The Couples – Stella Duffy (the magically surreal in a modern world and sensual nature of the tales above are very much present in Stella Duffy’s tale of a cruel Princess in need of a heart)

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Filed under Angela Carter, Books of 2010, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics