Tag Archives: Fourth Estate Books

Wetlands – Charlotte Roche

Please note: The book thoughts on Wetlands by Charlotte Roche may not be for the faint hearted or prudish, if you would like to skip this post then you can discuss Agatha Christie just here instead.

I know it sounds a bit silly putting that at the start of the post today (though as is human nature you might all read on regardless) but I wouldn’t want to offend anyone  and with a book like this I think that its worth popping that note in first before going any further, so there is still time for you to click away. All joking aside I do think that books like Wetlands should come with some kind of warning somewhere on the book as I don’t think any synopsis could quite prepare you for what you are about to read.

Wetlands is told through the eyes of 18 year old Helen Memel from her hospital bed after an accident during a rather intimate shaving incident. Starting as she means to go on she tells us not only of just how she got into this situation but also of the last time she came into hospital to be sterilized as soon as she became of age. From then on there is a fascination with the wound itself which takes us into a graphic and incredibly explicit account of her sex life (seriously everything is discussed, I wont say too much in case I get banned on this site) and her own personal hygiene regime.

At first I will admit I was titillated and then I embraced how Charlotte Roche writes so bluntly about all things concerning women and sex. Then I started to become grossed out by it all. I didn’t need to know about the narrator’s secretions in such detail again and again, to give you an example I will use the word ‘slime’ as it is used a lot in this context. I also didn’t need to know what she thought about her Dad’s anatomy or the fact she likes to eat other people’s spots. That’s all the gory details I shall go into for fear of offending anyone who has read this far further.

As Helen discusses all these things in minute detail her character and back story briefly glimpse through and actually we have a very, very interesting narrator. Helen is clearly torn up after her parent’s separation and her mothers attempted suicide and murder of her brother and how she uses her sexuality to deal with all of these conflicting emotions in her head. It was in fact those glimpses that made me read on. It’s a book I can’t say I disliked, though I didn’t love it. 

It is a book that made me think about what constitutes a graphic, open and supposedly feminist coming or age story (though if this is what girls are going through around the world heaven help us) or a book designed to sell on how shocking and explicit it is. For me the jury is still open, I would suggest other people give it a read to decide, should they have the guts for it.

I have nothing against graphic/controversial/explicit fiction and actually think some of it is much needed to tell the tale. American Psycho, which I enjoyed and found fascinating but would be unlikely to read again because of how darkly graphic it is, wouldn’t be so powerful if it wasn’t for the parts that make for incredibly difficult reading. Novel Insights has often recommended reading Anais Nin who is a classic author and does, from the two short stories I have read so far, write graphic erotica but its beautifully written and also thought provoking.

It does seem odd yesterday was writing about Dame Agatha Christie and now this, shows I read a diverse selection I guess! So the question that this book has brought up that I shall put out there for discussion is… when does the graphic become the shocking to sell, have you any examples or feelings on this?

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Filed under Charlotte Roche, Fourth Estate Books, Review

Me Cheeta – James Lever

When I heard that there was a book on the Man Booker Longlist that was the memoir of a celebrity ape I have to say I had a slightly snobbish attitude of ‘how on earth can something like that be on the Man Booker Longlist?’ I mean it didn’t fit in with my image of the Man Booker Award which instantly makes me think of stunning prose over thought provoking plot and this didn’t sound quite like that sort of book. How could you take a book that was a fake memoir by a chimpanzee seriously? I should have followed my own motto and not judged a book by its cover/blurb and let the actual reading of the book do the talking as it were.

James Lever’s debut novel ‘Me Cheeta’ is, yes that’s right, the fictional memoir of a famous ape. Yes ‘Cheeta’ is indeed the legendary sidekick of Tarzan and the cult classic 1950’s movies that took the world by storm and spawned many a sequel. Now I have to admit it takes a few pages of getting used to but once I was involved in the story I had to keep reminding me that it was fiction and that a chimp couldn’t actually tell you a story like this even if it was true and even if they wanted to.

Now retired and living happily as an artist in Palm Springs Cheeta takes a look back over the crazy and fabulous life that he has lived and of course the golden era of Hollywood in the 1950’s. If you like the era (and stars like Cary Grant, Mickey Rooney, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn) then you will love this book as it brings the Hollywood hey day very much to life. It is also filled with gossip and the cult of celebrity which of course right now is a huge market, come on whom of us can actually say that they have never read a famous person’s autobiography? This is the gossip from the times when production companies made stars what they were, decided their climb and devised their demise. It is also from the time when stars were stars for talent (on the whole) and for a long time.

The star of this book though of course is Cheeta and his story, which also includes quite a saddening childhood and period of capture, even if he does very honestly admit that he may have added violins and slight exaggerations in order to sell more copies of the book. This honesty both works in terms of being incredibly funny making me laugh out loud on the tube and also in places incredibly, and slightly unexpectedly, moving.

I really, really enjoyed this book and having read it am thrilled that it was on the Man Booker Longlist and quite sad that it didn’t make it onto the short list. I think this is an incredibly modern novel that would get many more people interested in reading the shortlist and reaching a market that it may sometimes miss. Someone said on an earlier blog they ‘never thought someone would seriously consider’ this book as going to the short list compared to the other books and my question is “why not”? It’s a compelling read with a great unreliable narrator and made it very difficult for me to put down, I laughed, I was moved and all this combined to a great read for me and some of the other shortlisted books haven’t had that effect on me.

What are your thoughts? Do you think a book like this should be on the Longlist? Last year Child 44 caused some controversy and I think that’s just the Man Booker moving with the times and being inclusive of all writers and more diverse, do you agree/disagree? Have you read this book?

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Filed under Fourth Estate Books, James Lever, Man Booker, Review

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I will be the first to admit that this wasn’t one of the Man Booker Long List that I was looking forward to the most. I think the size and subject, despite lots and lots of rave reviews online and in the press, were what were making me feel that this book was going to be too much for me. It wasn’t the fact it was historical fiction, in fact The Tudors, The Victorian era and the 1930’s are eras books can cover that I can read about until the cows come home. It was more who the book was about, was I really interested in a book all about Thomas Cromwell? You know the saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’ this might be my first case of ‘never judge a book by its subject’.

Reading the blurb I was lead to believe that ‘Wolf Hall’ would be the ‘fictional account of the first half of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ which considering I didn’t really know and wasn’t sure that I was all too bothered about. However ‘Wolf Hall’ isn’t just about Thomas Cromwell, though he is the main character and the book covers his youth and leads up to the height of his power to merely call it a ‘fictionalisation of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ doesn’t actually do the book justice whatsoever.

What Hilary Mantel manages to actually conjure up is 35 years of Tudor Britain and focusing especially the pivotal time in England’s history when Henry VIII decided Katherine was not the Queen for him and Anne Boleyn certainly was, thus changing the religious situation of England forever and creating one of its most tempestuous political climates. This isn’t told through the eyes of the King or off any of the Boleyn’s, this is all through the eyes of the man who would struggle and fight to become Henry’s right hand man from his beginnings as the son of an alcoholic abusive butcher.

Though what happens to him between 1500 and 1529 remains quite a mystery Mantel has clearly done a huge amount of research (you couldn’t make the Tudor world seem so very real without putting in huge amounts of time, effort and research) and does give us occasional glimpses when Cromwell reflects which he does now and again. What does come to light is he becomes Cardinal Wolsey’s right hand man and Cardinal Wolsey was of course Henry’s right hand man. Not only do we get to see the lavish lifestyles of the rich such as the king, the lavish like Wolsey and the comfortable like Cromwell. We also get to see, through Cromwell’s work with law, his time amongst the public and poor and time through plagues, how the poor lived and I honestly felt I was walking the streets with him.

Mantel never overdoes it though, her prose is descriptive but tight, she doesn’t wander off into endless flowery paragraphs of descriptions of one castle front, or one of Anne Boleyn’s dresses. The details are there they just happen to be precise and to the point yet vivid and scene setting. So if she is so precise how can this book be over 650 pages? Not because it is filled with endless political or religious terminology if that’s what you are worried about. Mantel spends time building all her characters and their back stories as Cromwell becomes aware of them or takes them into his household. Some of the cast of characters include as Wolsey, Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn as mentioned but also Mary Boleyn, Mary Tudor and Jane Seymour all fascinating historical characters.

I completely fell into the world of this book. I actually couldn’t put it down (which at its size in hardback is quite an effort on the arms) and rushed to read it at any given opportunity. Mantel may or may not win the Man Booker with this but what I think she has done is create an epic novel that will one day be considered a modern classic. I have found it to be one of the most compelling, interesting and complete joy to read novels of the year, and I don’t say that often or lightly. I think the fact it’s the longest of the Man Booker long list and I have read it in the shortest space of time of all of them should speak volumes.

I also think it’s a book that’s accessible to anyone. I don’t think everyone will like it, in fact I didn’t think I would at the start I just immersed myself and was ‘there’, well I felt I was. It seems inevitable that people will compare this to some of Philippa Gregory’s work, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ springs to mind instantly. While I did enjoy that book (sadly the one about one of my favourite women in history Bess of Hardwick ‘The Other Queen’ left me slightly cold) I do think Mantel takes the era an extra step though how is hard to put my finger on. No we will never know if these conversations ever happened but it does seem to be based much more on fact and less on what might possibly have happened. Having said that if you like Gregory (and I do – I just think this takes historical fiction further) then you will love this, if you love literary fiction I can imagine you loving this.

Can you tell I loved it yet? I will stop now, I could go on and on about this book for hours. I have given it straight to ‘The Converted One’ who is a Tudor-holic. I will just add that I do think going to Hampton Court Palace last week was the push I needed to read this and it came just at the right time.

Has anyone else been daunted by this book before reading it like I was? What are your thoughts on it being the favourite for the Man Booker at the moment? What do you think of historical fiction, can it be literary or is it just escapist romps in corsets? What’s the best historical novel you have read?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Fourth Estate Books, Hilary Mantel, Man Booker, Review

Offshore – Penelope Fitzgerald

I personally think that when you open a book that you know very little about and start to read it you give it a much fairer chance than you would a book that everyone has been raving about which I think makes you judge it more harshly. So what about a book that people you know and trust choice wise don’t really care for? I tend to write them off from the start and having heard some reviews of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1979 Man Booker winning novel Offshore, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book at all. But I have set myself the challenge of reading all the Man Booker Winners and so I gritted my teeth and… enjoyed it.

Offshore is set just as it says off shore. The shores in particular aren’t some glistening desert island but instead London in the late seventies, which was actually ‘the now’ when the book was released. In a small little community ‘belonging neither to land nor sea’ we meet the various residents of the houseboats of Battersea Reach. There are three main characters in the novel that we follow; Richard a man in a mainly unstable marriage who tries too keep everyone’s spirits up and is in some ways ‘the captain’ of the community, Nenna who has randomly bought a boat to live on with her daughters and husband, that latter of which never moved in and Maurice a male prostitute by occupation who is also looking after stolen goods.

How does a book that is only 180 pages and less than 50,000 words manage to encapsulate this society through the day to day and slightly unusual dilemma’s I hear you cry? Well that’s why I think it won the Man Booker. Though I could actually have read a lot more by the end of the book there isn’t much left to add. Just as quickly (and as wonderfully descriptively) as you are thrown into these people’s lives you are equally quickly (and wonderfully descriptively) thrown back out. These are snapshots not life stories and I quite like that in novels, especially with such a jumble of characters as this book has.

I happily meandered through their lives (it isn’t a fast paced book at all), some mundane and average, some dramatic and emotional like a barge meanders down the Thames taking in all the scenery along the way. It is very much a London book and very much a book about normal real people, both factors I like in any book. I have to say my favourite characters and therefore parts of the book because they were in them were Nenna’s children Tilda and Martha. I wanted to join them on the muddy banks of the river finding hidden treasure’s and running wild. This is a very economic book, sparse in words but full of vivid imagery and characters. I am so pleased that I had taken up the challenge and found what may not be on of my favourite reads of all time but fine example of simple, pure literary fiction from an author whose work I want to read more of.

This book has also brought up a little something that I did want to mention though and that is the timing of reading books and how you might relate to a book dependent on mood, where you are etc. So for those of you who have read the book and think I might have gone crazy, I will leave you with an image of where I was reading it (it’s very short so only took me a few hours)…

I think the surroundings whilst I was reading were quite perfect for this novel.

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Filed under Flamingo Books, Fourth Estate Books, Man Booker, Penelope Fitzgerald